In 1998 the Wales were ranked 108th in the FIFA world rankings. India was 110th. Fast forward 18 years into the future and Wales have just defeated Belgium – one of the world’s best teams – and are into the semi-finals of the Euros, ready to square off against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal. Divergent fortune since then for both the teams.
Forget Wales, even Iceland, a country with a population which can barely rival that of Bombay or Delhi, one which was ranked 112th in 2010 has progressed to the Quarter-finals of Euro 2016, defeating the likes of England on their way, while also drawing against Portugal, when no one gave them a snowball’s chance in hell of success. Now they are ranked 34th in the world, quite a leap in just half a decade, wouldn’t you say?
On the flipside, the Indian football team’s ranking has been steadily dipping since the last two decades, and the nation which looked ready to take world football by storm in the 50s and 60s is but a shadow of its former glory. With the advent of the ISL, things were looking up for a while, but we’ve fallen in the same rut once again and are stagnating – and in some cases, even faltering – as the fans of the I-League and the ISL continue to be at loggerheads over the formation of an exclusive new league, while the AIFF under the leadership of one Mr Praful Patel does not even know which tournaments its main team is playing in, leading to fiascos on social media, like the one on Twitter where they wished them the best for the World Cup Qualifiers, from which we had long been knocked out, while the team were actually participating in the Asian Cup Qualifiers.
With all of this turmoil, a lack of vision at the top, no proper direction, a battle between the I-League Clubs and ISL clubs over the formation of a new league, how exactly can Indian Football improve its rankings and display better performances on the world stage?
Well, firstly, the dispute between the two major leagues has to be sorted. A simple solution would be to just merge all the teams into a league of 18-20 teams, much like the best European leagues. Of course, there would be disparity when financial muscle and spending power of individual clubs comes into the picture, but in a sink or swim situation, the clubs who cannot get the best stars could work harder on youth development and build good academies, directly helping Indian Football.
Secondly, the Indian NT needs to play more international friendlies, that is the only way its ranking can go up. Just playing a handful of matches in a year against mediocre opponents isn’t going to cut it. They need to go and play away matches against the best in Asia. It would not only be a good learning experience, but also provide them with an insight into the speed at which football works at the highest level. The Indian U-17 team just played a friendly against Norway U-16, and though they lost 2-0, the experience will hold them in good stead in the future, developing their gameplay and intellect.
Most importantly, better infrastructure – beginning from better pitches – is needed, and India could take a leaf out of Iceland’s book here. Create more football stadia with state of the art turf, have more UEFA and AFC Licensing programs, make them more available to the public, generate awareness and interest about the smaller nuances of the sport.
All of these things go hand in hand, and only when they happen, will India be able to make its presence felt on the world footballing stage with a mighty roar!