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'Time to take on the big guns' - New FIFA ranking system means India has to play stronger opponents!

4:57 AM WAT 17/08/2018
India
While the previous FIFA ranking system meant teams could boost their rankings by not playing stronger teams, the new model does not allow for that...

In the past couple of years, the Indian national team have seen an upward surge in their FIFA rankings which saw them break into the top 100. They have been in and around that mark for much of the previous year. 

It was a commendable achievement, considering the fact that they were languishing at the 171st spot in 2015 when Stephen Constantine took charge of the team. While the performances of the Indian team did improve, much of it had to do with the shrewd planning of the All India Football Federation (AIFF).

The AIFF displayed alacrity to flirt with the old ranking framework and work it to their advantage, much like what countries like Greece did. It was done with the aim of pushing India into Pot 2 of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualifying draw. 

India managed to beat a higher-ranked Puerto Rico in 2016, which had a number of key players missing, which was obviously a huge boost to the rankings. However, the AIFF resisted the temptation to play any more friendlies in that year, to increase its ‘average points per match in the last 12 months’ figure which was a key marker in the old ranking framework. That risk paid off. 

India did manage to get into Pot 2, helping the Blue Tigers land a favourable group in the Asian Cup qualifying after being grouped with Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar and Macau. India managed to negotiate that group and secure a spot in the Asian Cup. 

However, with mounting criticism for its existing ranking method, FIFA decided to implement the ELO system which eliminates the possibility of such 'strategic' moves by countries. No longer, can you improve your rating by not playing friendlies against weak teams or in some cases, not playing any friendlies at all. 

As opposed to average points, the ELO method adds or subtracts points to a national team’s already existing total before a match. Hence, in theory, FIFA rankings will now change with each passing match as compared to the previous method of updating the rankings once every month on a particular date.

What it does mean is that the AIFF cannot anymore manipulate the rankings to boost the team's ranking (nothing wrong in that). Winning against teams you are expected to beat will not boost your rankings anymore. If other teams around do better, they will bring down your ranking as well. (For a proper understanding of the ELO rating system, click here)

The time has come for the Indian team to test their mettle against bigger guns. 

The first edition of the FIFA ranking under the new ELO rating, released on Thursday, has seen India placed at the 96th spot. As a pleasant surprise, it was a spot higher than the previous ranking in July 2018. 

But in the future, in order to maintain and subsequently improve the team's ranking, AIFF has no choice but to play higher-ranked opponents. In short, to better the country's highest-ever raning (94th), India will have to earn it by playing well against strong teams. 

As of now, India only have a friendly scheduled against China who are ranked 75th at the moment. The country will need to play more such friendlies and the onus is on the AIFF. 

One must also take into note the fact that higher-ranked countries will not be forthcoming when it comes to playing friendlies against lower-ranked countries, given the new ranking system. 

In such a case, the ELO rating makes sure that performance in international tournaments like the Asian Cup will have a greater weightage. But given that India are playing in a strong group consisting of the likes of UAE, Thailand and Bahrain, it will be a challenge for the Blue Tigers to progress from the group. 

Convincing stronger Asian nations to play India for friendlies will be a challenge for the AIFF but it is one that the Indian FA has to embrace. They have to deliver or risk seeing the team drop down the ranking ladder. 

There is much optimism surrounding the sport after the advent of the ISL and the performance of the India junior teams. The future looks brighter but in order for the optimism to translate into a climb in the ranking table, India have no option but to compete with the best.