India’s recent loss to Maldives in the SAFF Suzuki Cup final has again opened the debate on the validity of India’s international ranking. Maldives, which is currently ranked 150 in the world, surprised many when it toppled the defending champion and the pre-tournament favourite India 2-1 in the title decider. With India set to compete in the AFC Asian Cup in a little over three months, in January in UAE, the loss has dented the feel-good factor engulfing the national side.
Among all the participants in the SAFF Championship, India was the only side that had secured qualification to the final stage of the Continental championship. National coach, Stephen Constantine, had arranged a 45-day camp to prepare the batch of under-23 players, most of whom have already started their professional careers with some of the top clubs in the country. The move was hailed initially as Constantine opted to try youngsters while resting the seniors like captain Sunil Chhetri and Balwant Singh among others.
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However, it is to be noted that Constantine waited until the last minute and announced the SAFF Cup squad merely a day before the side's opening clash against Sri Lanka.
In October 2017, the country had qualified for the Asian Cup, barely three months after it broke into the top-100 of the FIFA rankings. It brought a lot of cheer with everyone related with Indian football calling it a renaissance. The improvement was quite startling and verged almost on incredulity as India had touched the nadir of the rankings, plummeting to 173 in 2015. The improvement of 77 places, which saw India reaching the 96th spot (in July 2017) after a break of 21 years, came as a surprise to many.
The FIFA ranking system was the suspect as the world governing body of football was riddled with allegations that many of the countries were manipulating the system by wilfully playing against lesser ranked oppositions on a regular basis. India apparently had been trying to protect its rankings by avoiding friendlies.
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“When I took over, I had mentioned that my target was to bring India below 100. I am happy to have played a small part in this process. Kudos to the boys, the staff and a big thank you to my colleagues in AIFF for supporting us all throughout,” Constantine said.
"But the present FIFA spot doesn’t mean that we have achieved much. We need to stay focused on the upcoming challenges,” the Anglo-Cypriot, who took over the reins of the Indian team in 2015 in his second stint as the head coach, had remarked after the momentous breach (into the top 100).
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India won four consecutive matches to secure its Asian Cup final stage qualification, the last being a 4-1 win over Macau. But with the Asian Cup format getting changed to 24 teams in the final stage from the usual 16, the qualification norms became a bit simpler compared to earlier editions. The Asian Cup qualification euphoria was buoyed by the triumph in the Intercontinental Cup in June this year. The title, however, came against youth sides (under-23), which were invited to the tournament.
This artificially-induced bonhomie could well have been extended further if India had defended its SAFF title. The decision to experiment with the under-23 side could well have been satisfying had the boys pulled off a win against Maldives, the same side they had beaten comfortably in the group league stage.
The lack of experience may have been one big reason why the group of under-23 players crumbled under pressure giving an otherwise modest Maldives the bragging rights. The unexpected loss has given added voice to Constantine’s detractors with many former national players clamouring for his resignation.
It will be the first time in more than a year when the Indian national side meets a higher-ranked opponent in China (currently ranked 75), in a friendly in October. More will follow thereafter. This could well be the opportunity for Constantine to assess his team ahead of the Asian Cup, where India is clubbed in group A alongside host UAE, Bahrain and Thailand.
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Constantine made a confident assertion following the Asian Cup draw in May saying that his team can qualify for the knockout stage. For that to happen, Constantine will need to dramatically improve the quality of his squad and find a playing system that allows the players to compete at par with superior opponents. The coach will also need to identify a strong starting XI.
The change in FIFA ranking system — the governing body has adopted Elo ranking guidelines — will force the country to play against higher-ranked opponents to hold on to its rankings. Constantine and his current wards could be found wanting in such a scenario.