India climb FIFA rankings without kicking a ball

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India’s last friendly was against Puerto Rico in September, which they won 4-1. Since then, AIFF ignored two FIFA windows.

On Thursday, India touched its highest world ranking since August 2006. And they achieved it without even kicking a ball in the last four months. India were ranked 129th by FIFA, up six spots from their year-end ranking for 2016. Since the time they last played an international friendly — against Puerto Rico in September — the team has jumped 23 places.

It seems the All India Football Federation (AIFF) was focussed more on the ranking mathematics to ensure the team moved up the charts rather than play matches. Their motive was simple: reach as high as possible in the January rankings to ensure a decent draw from the final round of 2019 Asian Cup qualifiers. Critics will say it is not an ideal way to prepare a team for a competition but as several teams in the past have shown, an effective one.

The way FIFA calculates rankings has often left many perplexed. Their method is based on a simple calculation, at least on face value. For every match a team plays, points are accumulated by primarily taking into account the strength of the opposition, with multipliers such as the result (x3 for a win, x0 for defeat) and the level of competition (maximum for world/continental competition, least for friendlies).

Then, an average of points gained in every match over the last four years is taken (with a higher weighting applied to the most recent year), resulting in the team’s current points for ranking purposes.

But there’s a loophole in the system — because the weightage for friendlies is the least, a team can stack up ranking points by not playing any while banking on the results in competitive matches in previous years.

So when the AIFF scheduled a friendly against Puerto Rico last September, coach Stephen Constantine and back-room brains sat down with their calculators. India were ranked 152 back then, which would have seen the team in a tough group for the Asian Cup qualifiers. A win against Puerto Rico, placed 114, would have seen them jump just four places (which they did thanks to a 4-1 demolition).

But to be in Pot 1 or Pot 2 — the pools comprising the highest ranked teams — of the qualifying draw, India had to be around 125. There were two nine-day windows for the team to play friendly matches – October 3 to 11 and November 7 to 15. But the AIFF chose not to. While the buzz was it was due to the Indian Super League (ISL), the AIFF had instead taken a calculated risk.

It was a gamble, but AIFF general secretary Kushal Das said it has been ‘up to their expectation.’ “We have come down from 140s to 129. The thinking was simply to get a favourable draw so that we have best possible chance to qualify for Asian Cup in 2019,” Das said.

“I would have been happy if we were in Pot 1 of the qualifying draw. But at least we are in Pot 2. There was a little miscalculation as I was certain that (ranking of) less than 130, we would be Pot 1. The cut off now would be 126 maybe,” he said off the draw, which is likely to be held in Kuala Lumpur on January 23.

This isn’t to say the surge in rankings is only because of this calculation. After a dismal start to Constantine’s second term, the national team won nine out of the last 11 matches and his second stint as the coach, India have leapfrogged 42 spots.

But its performances in friendlies has been poor. The win against Puerto Rico was just third victory in an official FIFA friendly since January 2011 (other two coming against Malaysia in 2011 and Nepal in 2013). Other wins have come in the SAF Cup or unofficial friendly matches. By not playing a friendly after the win over Puerto Rico, the AIFF played it safe.

They ensured the team did not lose points, and places, while at the same time, the weightage carried forward from previous years helped the team move up the rankings. It’s a strategy several countries have adopted of late — Wales, Romania and Switzerland being the most recent examples. Now that their objective has been achieved, Das said India will play a friendly in February. “We will finalise the venue and opponent once the draw for the Asian Cup is announced. Whom we play and where will depend on what our group is and whether our first qualifying match (on March 28) is home or away,” he said. They have beaten the system once to move up. But a new set of calculations for the Asian Cup is something that will occupy the AIFF’s minds now.

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