Easy on the merry-making

No doubt, India’s FIFA ranking has improved tremendously over the last couple of years. However, we must be restrained in our celebration, as better ranking does not necessarily imply a major improvement in standards of the national team. The ranking, after all, has been achieved through some astute number crunching that has taken advantage of the loopholes in FIFA’s ranking system, writes Novy Kapadia.

The Indian national football team which took on Myanmar in AFC Asia Cup qualifiers.   -  AIFF Media

April is not the cruellest month for Indian football. India was last ranked 101 in the world in April 1994. Twenty-three years later, in April 2017, India has again been ranked 101. The improvement has been massive, as in March 2015 India had slumped to 173 out of 209 countries ranked by FIFA.

Coach Stephen Constantine deserves credit for revamping the national side, taking players out of their comfort zone, giving 32 players their first international games and bringing down the average age of the national team by five years. He has only chosen those players who have an overwhelming commitment and desire to play for India. Improved fitness regimes and scientific monitoring has also helped.

The rapid improvement in the rankings has created a feel-good factor in Indian football. On social media Indian football fans, mostly metropolitan youth of the mall-going middle- and upper-middle-class, are euphoric about how the national team’s rankings have rapidly improved from 132 in March 2017 to 101 in April this year. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) is also gung ho about the rankings, as the Federation feels that it can help in persuading the corporate sector to invest more in Indian football. If India can retain this ranking or nearabout the main benefit will be a favourable draw in continental competitions.

However, India’s FIFA ranking must be put in proper perspective. The joy must be restrained, as meticulous analysis reveals that better ranking does not imply a major improvement in standards of the national team. Instead, it has been achieved through some astute number crunching that has taken advantage of the loopholes in FIFA’s ranking system.

At 101, India is ranked 11th in Asia, above North Korea (qualified for the 2010 World Cup), Iraq (Asian Cup champion in 2007) and the rapidly improving Jordan and Oman. India lost to Oman, both home (1-2) and away (0-3), in 2015 during the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. So whatever the rankings may indicate, the current Indian team would struggle to compete against any of the above mentioned Asian countries. After all, Iraq beat Asia’s top-ranked team Iran 1-0 in a friendly in March this year, and held Australia to a draw in a 2018 World Cup qualifier, also in March this year.

Creditably, both Constantine and skipper Sunil Chhetri have advised restraint instead of uninhibited joy at the upsurge in rankings. The skipper admitted that rankings are a fickle measurement of a team’s worth and a major effort will be required to retain this position. Constantine has also maintained that the national team has shown steady improvement but still cannot be considered among the leading Asian nations.

So how and why did India’s FIFA rankings improve significantly from September 2016 to April 2017?

FIFA’s monthly ranking points are based on the number of international matches played. Multiple parameters are used to gather points but World Cup qualifiers and continental championship qualifiers are given thrice the weightage of an international friendly. Also added incentive is given for an away win or for a victory against a higher-ranked team.

The number of points that can be won in an international match depends on four important factors. A team gains three points for a victory, one point for a draw and zero points for a defeat. In a penalty shoot-out, the winning team gets two points and the losing team one point. The points for match results are called M.

Next criterion is the importance of the result, known as I. The ratings vary as per the importance of the tournament. The FIFA World Cup final competition is worth 4, a Confederation-level tournament like the European Championships or Asian Cup is rated 3. World Cup or Confederation Cup qualifiers are worth 2 and friendly internationals are rated 1.

The strength of the opposing team is also factored in as T. FIFA has a formula for this ranking system. The country at the top of the FIFA rankings is assigned the value 200 and the teams ranked 150 and below are given a minimum value of 50. This is known as T.

Finally, the strength of the Confederation is gauged and called C. The value of CONMEBOL (South America) is 1 and the UEFA is 0.99 (since 2014, the value was brought down from 1). All the other confederations including the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) are rated 0.85.

So all these factors are brought together in the following formula to ascertain the total number of points garnered (P). Thus, for any nation P=M x I x T x C. So an upset victory against a top-ranked team in a World Cup (like Costa Rica beating Uruguay and Italy in the 2014 World Cup) can fetch the winner a maximum of 2400 points by FIFA’s formula. For instance, when Switzerland upset Spain 1-0 on June 16, 2010, in their opening group match of the 2010 World Cup, the Swiss bagged a huge haul of 2376 points. The team got 3 points for the win. As it was a World Cup tie it was rated 4. Spain was then ranked No. 2 in the World, so had a value of 198 and the value of the Confederation (in this case UEFA) was 1.00. So for the Swiss, the points gained by this surprise win were 3 x 4 x 198 x1=2376.

India won two away international matches (3-2 versus Cambodia in a friendly tie and 1-0 versus Myanmar in an Asian Cup qualifier) for the first time in the 21st century and this enabled it to garner 331 points and make the leap from 132 to 101. Credit has to be given to the AIFF officials for being hyperactive and taking advantage of the system in the latter half of 2016.

After beating a second string but higher-ranked Puerto Rico 4-2 on September 3, 2016, in Mumbai, India did not play a single match for almost six months. This ploy worked, as by not playing India did not lose any ranking points. Simultaneously, the weightage carried forward from corresponding months in previous years ensured that India’s rankings did not remain static but improved from 148 in September 2016 to 129 in January 2017.

So it is not performance on the field but also mathematical manipulations that have enabled India improve its FIFA rankings. Improvement in FIFA rankings helps in acquiring more sponsorship and corporate support, so now research papers are being published to show how it can be done.

A detailed analysis of how this number-crunching system works can be read in How To Improve a Team’s Position In the FIFA Rankings; A Simulation Study by Jan Lasek, Zoltan Szlavik, Marek Pagolewski and Sandjai Bhulai. This research paper, which is part of a doctoral thesis at the Warsaw University, provides practical instances of choosing the number of games to play and the choice of opponents, finding optional fixtures, planning one game ahead and planning several games ahead.

So, cynical but shrewd number crunching may have helped India to improve its FIFA rankings but there are a lot of positives too. The AIFF deserves credit for not succumbing to social media pressure when India lost seven out of the eight 2018 World Cup qualifiers and there was a clamour for the removal of Constantine and replacing him with a high profile coach like Zico or one of the big names from the ISL. Creditably, Constantine has helped India’s FIFA rankings to gradually improve by creating competition for places within the team.

Complacency is not allowed to set in as there is intense competition for places in the final XI. For instance, there are three players — Jerry Lalrinzuala, Fulganco Cardozo and Subashish Bose — challenging the established international Narayan Das for the left back position. Similarly, there is intense competition for Pritam Kotal’s position as right back. Young Nishu Kumar, Rino Anto and Aiborlang Khongjee are the other contenders for the right back position.

In midfield, talented young Milan Singh and Holicharan Narzary are stars for the future. The emergence of the dashing 20-year-old winger, Udanta Singh, noted for his explosive speed, and Daniel Lalhlimpuia shows that even established stars like skipper Sunil Chhetri, Jeje Lalpekhlua and Robin Singh cannot take their places for granted. The cohesive atmosphere in the squad and the competition for places in the playing XI has made India a tough team to beat. However, the ultimate test of India’s improvement will come when it plays higher-ranked Lebanon in a friendly and Kyrgyzstan in an Asian Cup qualifier in June this year.

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