Welcome back to the third and final article in our series that talks about the problems faced by Indian football. So far, we’ve talked about the nation’s structural, infrastructural and institutional problems, with special emphasis on youth development and grassroots programmes. This article will, like the others talk about two aspects of the Indian game that are holding it back. However, unlike the four aspects discussed so far, these ones are far easier to fix. So, let’s not beat around the bush and get started.
If you’re even remotely interested in Indian football and keep tabs of what’s going on with the national team, you’d know that things are looking upward. The national team has brought itself back from the dead after jumping from being ranked 173 by FIFA to 97 in a mere three years. Some are comparing this to the calm before a storm that will see India replicate its achievements during the golden era that came in the 1950s and 1960s.
India was on a 10+ game unbeaten run until March of this year and had qualified for the AFC Asian Cup for the first time since 2011. The squad seemed to be full of players of unmatched quality, there’s a dedicated and loyal coach in Stephen Constantine, and football is gaining popularity in the nation. However, all is not what it seems. Behind India’s meteoric rise to the FIFA ranking top 100, there lies a rather shady plot that deems the entire rise in the table a sham.
Now, you may know that in the world football rankings system, there are two schools of thought. One school preaches and believes in the official FIFA rankings, whereas the other considers the ‘Elo’ system to be a fairer reflection of national teams. I’m personally a student in the latter school. The Elo system gives higher weight to competitive games and matches against better-ranked opposition, unlike the FIFA system which is very confusing at times. India is ranked 97th in the FIFA rankings, whereas in the Elo system, India comes in at a much worse 159.
What that effectively means is that India has been playing against weaker opposition to bolster its FIFA ranking and appear stronger than it actually is. To simply prove this fact to you, let me analyse India’s 13-game unbeaten run that lasted for almost two years. Numbers in brackets indicate the Elo rankings of the teams.
- India (183) 1-0 Laos (208)
- India (183) 6-1 Laos (209)
- India (183) 3-0 Bhutan (234)
- India (182) 4-1 Puerto Rico (186)
- India (177) 3-2 Cambodia (210)
- India (174) 1-0 Myanmar (185)
- India (172) 2-0 Nepal (201)
- India (171) 1-0 Kyrgyzstan (162)
- India (170) 2-1 Mauritius (184)
- India (170) 1-1 Saint Kitts and Nevis (144)
- India (169) 2-0 Macao (223)
- India (169) 4-1 Macao (222)
- India (169) 2-2 Myanmar (177)
After the game against Myanmar, India played Kyrgyzstan in Bishkek, and a loss there meant that the unbeaten run was broken. Anyway, I hope you noticed a trend in all of those results. Out of the 14 games India played in total, only two were against higher-ranked opposition. Out of those two games, the one against Kyrgyzstan was in an Asian Cup qualifier, meaning the team couldn’t have possibly avoided it. The other against Saint Kitts and Nevis was a friendly that India couldn’t even manage to win. Another interesting stat is that six out of the 14 matches were friendlies, meaning that it was up to the AIFF who to invite and play. In fact, the last time India played a team better than them in an organised friendly, it was in 2013 against Palestine.
Even if you didn’t pay attention and take a good look at the list, simply looking at India’s Elo ranking after the first game against Laos and the game against Myanmar. After 14 whole games, India’s Elo ranking moved by the same amount, meaning that India picked up a measly point per game. For reference, when South Korea defeated Germany at the 2018 World Cup, their Elo ranking jumped 20 places from 45 to 25.
What this goes to show is that the AIFF deliberately holds friendlies with teams worse than the Indian one to boost the FIFA rankings and ‘prove’ that Indian football is doing so well. If Real Madrid played Leganes, Levante and Las Palmas for 14 straight games and didn’t lose, you wouldn’t congratulate them for it.
If you’re a curious cat, you might be wondering what India did to jump ten extra places in the Elo rankings. Well, they organised an ‘Intercontinental Cup’ in Mumbai and invited three teams: Kenya, New Zealand, and Taiwan. The Taiwanese are below India in both the FIFA and Elo rankings, so it’s no surprise that of the 50-odd nations in Asia, the AIFF invited them. Kenya has a lower FIFA ranking than the Indians but is better than the Indians in the Elo system. The Kiwis are similar to the Kenyans, better in the Elo rankings but worse in the FIFA ones.
In the mini-tournament, India played Kenya twice, and the other two nations once each. After beating Taiwan by five goals to nil, India jumped by a single place. After beating a low strength and depleted Kenya team, India even managed to cheat the Elo system and jumped by six places to 164. A New Zealand team with no regular players in the squad, filled with U23 players, defeated a full-strength India and that meant that the Indians slipped to 167. This was particularly funny as India would’ve expected a win against the weak Kiwi team, and defeating the 81st ranked team in the Elos would’ve definitely given them a big boost. India then beat Kenya in the tournament’s final and gained eight places, coming to their current spot at number 159.
Next, India will play a group of minnows in the pointless South Asian Championship before it faces China and Saudi Arabia in October. Apparently, those fixtures aren’t even confirmed at this point, so it’s quite possible the next time India faces quality opposition will be at the 2019 Asian Cup.
We can now safely conclude that the AIFF loves to cheat the ranking systems so that it can appear as if the Indian national team is actually making any progress, and that’s actually worse for the nation as compared to playing a half-decent team and losing 15-0. Playing worse opposition and winning by a lot of goals or going a tonne of games unbeaten already signifies that the team is ready for a greater challenge, however, the AIFF doesn’t seem to care.
Why does the federation do this? Are they actually not aware that the team plays so much against weaker teams? Do bigger teams not accept invitations from India? To be fair, your guess is as good as mine. However, one possible hypothesis is that the AIFF does this just to avoid coming under fire. When your FIFA ranking is on the rise and you’re qualifying for international tournaments, who cares about the Elo rankings or whether if you’re playing against weaker or stronger opposition. As they say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Here though, it is broke. But because it looks good on the surface, there’s no point fixing it.
If India plays better opposition and starts losing and their FIFA ranking keeps slipping, the fans and media won’t react well to it and the AIFF will have to face the music. Government organisations in India like things on low volume, music isn’t something they like, so playing weak teams and winning is in the best interests of the AIFF.
If things remain the same, then the quality of the national team will just remain at one level and Indian football will start stagnating. It is quite possible that the AIFF is forced to change its modus operandi due to FIFA changing their ranking model. The organisation will now adopt a modified version of the Elo system specifically to stop teams such as India from manipulating the rankings and pushing themselves higher in the table.
Hopefully, these changes will prompt a change in the mentality and schedule of the Indian team for the better, as we’re tired of playing some random low-level nation every international break. India captain Sunil Chhetri also praised the change in the rankings, and said: “It’s a good thing, now that we (India) have to play (more) official games.”
You know there’s something wrong with your country’s football federation when even your nation’s best player is contradicting their standpoint on such a simple issue.
Interestingly enough, while researching for the next section, I came across a paragraph that just cements the legitimacy of this one. In a recent interview, former India captain Renedy Singh said: “If you constantly play teams like Nepal and Bangladesh, you are going to be at that level. Unless you play better sides than yours, you won’t have any hope of getting better. You need to get these games so you can at least judge where your country stands. Forget competing against sides like Japan or South Korea or Iran. How many times do we even get a chance to compete against teams of the calibre of Thailand (FIFA ranking 122) and Vietnam (FIFA rank 102)? Unless that happens, how we will get an idea of where we stand?” I rest my case.
Now if the above section wasn’t enough to make you hate the AIFF and other Indian governing bodies, this should be. The excerpt of the interview in the concluding paragraph of the last section was taken from a discussion with Renedy after the Indian Olympic Association announced that it wouldn’t send any football teams to the upcoming Asian games. The IOA was slammed by the AIFF and numerous other entities and people that are major players in the Indian football scene, and understandably so. The IOA said that the reason it wouldn’t send any teams to the Asiad is that it thinks that the teams won’t have a chance of winning any medals.
“Football is enjoying peak popularity in the country, the team’s been playing well, morale is high, a major intracontinental event is coming up that will give the lads exposure on the highest level, so let’s just not send any teams.” That is the translation of the IOA’s thought process into words. It makes as much sense as you’d expect.
The AIFF is also no stranger to controversies and coming under fire. A couple of years ago, FIFA threatened to revoke India’s status as a FIFA member due to allegations and reports of third-party interference in the AIFF President elections. In simple words, FIFA almost kicked India out due to the AIFF fixing its presidential elections. The worst part is that that isn’t even something that surprising given the overall state of Indian football. Some former players also filed PILs (Public Interest Litigation, a form of a lawsuit) against the AIFF.
Recently, the AIFF was ridiculed for the format of a new Super Cup they formed. Mohun Bagan FC’s financial secretary, Debashish Dutta claimed that the cup is a laughing stock, and many other people of power said that writing letters, or appealing to the AIFF is absolutely useless.
After the AIFF’s 75th anniversary, Goal.com conducted a survey asking fans what they think of the AIFF, and every response was negative. I’ve covered everything those responses said in detail in this series, bar two. A couple of readers were puzzled at the sacking of former India manager Bob Houghton in 2011. After the ‘50s and ‘60s, India played their best football under the English manager, but he was sacked amidst racism allegations. These allegations were never confirmed, nor denied, but Houghton was sacked.
However, the story behind his sacking runs a bit deeper than just racism allegations. Many, including I, believe that Houghton was sacked not due to some racist remarks, but for fairly criticising footballing facilities in India. The manager had said that the team is forced to train outside India. The country has just one proper football facility, and that too isn’t used for football and that it’s players are expected to play on pitches no self-respecting top player would play on. All of those criticisms are absolutely spot on and reasonable. However, the AIFF took offence, and it is considered that these remarks played a big part in Houghton’s sacking. In India, there’s a meme that says that getting offended is the full-time job of many Indians, and I can’t disagree.
The second topic I haven’t discussed is the political interference in Indian football and the AIFF. The current president of the AIFF, Praful Patel used to be India’s aviation minister, and drove the national airline into the ground, and is also a member of parliament. Patel’s predecessor was a noted politician who never kicked a football in his life but ruled the AIFF for almost 20 years.
Such cases of political interference are extremely common not only in the AIFF, but everything in India. King Midas turned everything into gold, whereas India turns everything into political interference.
It isn’t impossible for Indian governing bodies to simply get a grip on themselves and try to grow Indian football, but common Indian traits such as having zero dedication and honesty towards your duty make this impossible. This might sound harsh, and even stereotypical or insulting, but trust me, it’s nothing else but the truth.
India is, or was known as ‘Sone ki Chidiya’, or ‘Bird of Gold’ for much of the independence movement and for a few decades after independence. Some optimists use the phrase to this day. Like everything about India, from its culture to its people, its football team also reflected the fact that it was from a nation known as the Golden Bird. However now, nothing about India is golden. As much as that pains me to say, it’s the truth.
I’ll tell you writing this series of articles was not an easy job. Tearing everything about a major aspect of your country is never easy, especially when you realise that things are even worse than what you thought they were, which I did.
Still, though, it was necessary for someone to bring all this to light and basically expose Indian football. Indian football fans deserve much better, Indian footballers deserve much better, everyone connected to Indian football (except the governing bodies) deserve so much better.
What we deserve though, doesn’t matter to the people at the AIFF, IOA and even the parliament. The people of India are always let down by those in power, yet can do nothing about it. If you’re from a country that has a stable political system, low levels of corruption, and is considered to be a good nation, chances are whatever I’ve said comes as a shock to you. For us people living in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and such countries, all this is just a part of the average day.
All we want to see is for our people to come together, in whatever way we can, and see the Golden Bird take flight again. We want our wings in the North East to join in with our heart in Madhya Pradesh, and our feet in the South, so that the people of India are united again. Football is something that is a synonym for unity, and if India becomes a footballing power, I assure you that India itself will become a much better place to live, in a social sense.
Right now, there is nothing that really unites all 1.3 billion of us, but football can change that. For reasons that aren’t just limited to a love of the game, we want Indian football to become good. To us, football is more than just a game. However, whether it can really reach its true potential, off and on the pitch, is a matter of debate.
*this article is the third and final part of a series that talks about the various problems faced by Indian football.