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Indian National Football Team: Is 'breaking a 12-year jinx' as big a deal as it is being made out to be?

19:27 SAST 2017/03/24
Cambodia India International friendly 2017
India's win against Cambodia speaks more about the digression from the existing policy of choosing opponents than their improvement on the field.

BY ATANU MITRA (Follow @Atanu00 on Twitter)

On Wednesday, the Indian national football team stuttered initially in their friendly tie against Cambodia, but courtesy an improved second-half performance, managed to eke out a 3-2 victory. The hard-fought win managed to get some coverage in mainstream media, but most headlines revolved around it being ‘India’s first away friendly victory in 12 years’.

This was a narrative that was pushed intentionally by the All India Football Federation (AIFF), knowing very well that many journalists will have to depend on their report given that there was no TV telecast of the national team’s first match in seven months. The ploy worked and with news agencies and newspapers picking up the lead, it easily became the most talked-about point about a fixture that very few could actually manage to watch.

The statistic is correct and Stephen Constantine and his men must be lauded for breaking the ’12-year jinx’. However, before one starts drawing inference about domestic football based on this single score-line and the narrative sold with it, it is worth taking a look at what happened in those dozen years in between and why India’s record in away friendlies have been so shambolic.

The rationale is pretty straightforward. India didn’t win many, err any, because most of the matches they were playing on the road were meant to be tests of character against higher-ranked opponents and not confidence-boosting exercises like the fixture against Cambodia was.

India have only played a handful of away friendlies over the last twelve years, a major chunk of them coming in the run-up to the 2011 AFC Asian Cup. Of the 15 FIFA approved friendlies, only three were played against oppositions ranked below India, with two of them coming in the Fiji tour under Sukhwinder Singh in 2005. On the only other instance where India played against a weaker opponent, they drew the match.

The trends can be dissected further to point out the big difference in India’s showings against higher-ranked teams compared to those against weaker sides. In the four matches played against lower-ranked sides, India have lost three and drew one, conceded six goals and scored thrice.

On the other hand, in the matches against the higher-ranked sides, they lost 10 of the 11 encounters, conceded 37 goals and scored only five. The only match out of those they had drawn came against Hong Kong on 18th February 2006, when the opponents were ranked only one place higher than India.  

Year Opponents India's Rank Opponent's Rank Difference (India-Opponent) Score (India second since away match) Result
2005 Fiji 121 131 -10 1-0 LOSS
2005 Fiji 121 131 -10 2-1 LOSS
2006 Hong Kong 118 117 1 2-2 DRAW
2009 Hong Kong 142 152 -10 2-1 LOSS
2010 Thailand 138 104 34 1-0 LOSS
2010 Iraq 144 94 50 2-0 LOSS
2010 Kuwait 144 103 41 9-1 LOSS
2010 UAE 144 99 45 5-0 LOSS
2011 Maldives 147 151 -4 1-1 DRAW
2011 Trinidad and Tobago 153 88 65 3-0 LOSS
2011 Guyana 158 114 44 2-1 LOSS
2012 Oman 154 95 59 5-1 LOSS
2012 Azerbaijan 154 109 45 3-0 LOSS
2012 Singapore 168 162 6 2-0 LOSS
2013 Tajikistan 145 114 31 3-0 LOSS

One thing becomes clear after going through the table - in the last 12 years, India have not played a single match against a side that was ranked more than 10 places below them. Ranked 173rd, Cambodia are also the weakest team India have played in an away friendly since the turn of the century. If anything, India's face-off against Cambodia was a welcome change to AIFF's policy of only playing much stronger opponents away from home. However, to project it as an unusual success story would be factually wrong.

Three years after the introduction of Indian Super League and with the proposed new league system waiting to be rolled out, the Indian football hierarchy is in dire need to prove that the non-trivial path taken by them has already begun to reap dividends.

As domestic football struggles to lure a sustainable new fanbase, these headlines will be beneficial in short term to paint a rosy picture of Indian football and entice some to follow the local heroes, but the long-time followers will only be satisfied when India can make it count against the likes of Lebanon and Palestine, whom they face on the travel in friendlies in July.