In world football, rankings are an important indicator.
While the official FIFA Rankings may not be an exact measure of the strength of a national team, it tells how a country plans its international programme and charts its course. Results quantify progress.
It must be remembered that rankings play a big role in draws and seeding for major tournaments.
The Indian football team’s journey through the FIFA Rankings, since its inception in 1992, has been nothing short of a roller coaster ride.
Here’s an analysis of how the Indian football team’s rankings points plotted its course over the years.
1992-1995: Initial surge and fall
When the first official FIFA Rankings were rolled out in December of 1992, India were ranked 143 in the world. However, there was a lot to look forward to.
With IM Vijayan approaching his peak and the likes of Jo Paul Ancheri and Bruno Coutinho breaking through, India were a very exciting attacking unit at that time. A cool-headed veteran in VP Sathyan, who managed the defence, was also a mentor to the younger generation of India players.
India enjoyed a remarkable 1993 calendar year, rising up the leaderboard sharply and broke into the top 100 by the end of the year on the back of a silver medal finish at the South Asian Games.
That year, India also drew against Lebanon and won against Hong Kong in their 1994 FIFA World Cup qualifiers. Two draws against Cameroon and a stalemate against Finland in an international friendly only fast-tracked their entry into the top 100.
However, with considerably fewer international matches over the next couple of years, India did not have enough opportunities to build to defend its ranking and conceded 21 places to end 1995 at the 121st spot in the football rankings.
To compare, India played a total of 18 FIFA-sanctioned matches in 1993 compared to a total of 12 in 1994 and 1995.
1996-1999: Period of sustained improvement
Starting in 1995, the number of international fixtures slowly started going up and the world rankings, too, saw incremental but sustained improvement throughout the period.
Another factor playing its role in the upward trend was the introduction of Bhaichung Bhutia. The youngster marked his international debut in March 1995 and along with Vijayan, formed one India’s most telling forward line since the golden era in the 1950s and ‘60s.
With Bhutia and Vijayan spearheading the India charge, the team shot up to the 94th place in the standings in February 1996, which, to date, remains the best Indian football team ranking on the FIFA leaderboard.
India also won successive SAFF Championships (1997 and 1999) within the period.
The year 1999, in particular, was very productive for Vijayan and Bhutia. While the former netted seven goals in his 12 FIFA-sanctioned international games that year, Bhutia scored four in four with India playing an exciting brand of football.
Turn of the millennium and decade-and-a-half of uncertainty
With a new formula for FIFA Rankings coming into effect from 1999, which accounted for the level of opponents and score lines, the Indian football team lost much of the momentum it had built over the past few years.
Except for 2002 LG Cup victory in Vietnam, qualifying for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup, and a FIFA World Cup qualifier win against Asian giants UAE in 2001, India had little to show in a 15-year period.
With lack of consistency, India’s ranking witnessed a steady decline over the years. There were occasional recoveries, but nothing noteworthy.
Furthermore, constant changes to the team’s core made things difficult.
Vijayan and Ancheri’s retirement in 2003, left Bhutia to shoulder the team’s scoring responsibilities alongside a very young Sunil Chhetri.
Vijayan had later lamented his decision. "If I had delayed my retirement by at least one or two years, maybe I could have played alongside you. I was unlucky,” he later told Sunil Chhetri. "Imagine what you (Chhetri), me and Bhutia could have done while playing together. It would have been great."
Similarly, when Chhetri was beginning to show signs of a quality international player, Bhutia retired after a disappointing AFC Asian Cup 2011 campaign.
With the lack of stability, India’s rank had dipped to 171 as 2014 came to a close.
2015-19: Back in the top 100
Despite falling to 173 – the lowest-ever in the Indian football team rankings history - in April 2015, there were some big changes already being implemented behind the scenes, which would bear fruit eventually.
Stephen Constantine was brought back as the Indian football team head coach in January 2015 and it was not long before his pragmatic style started yielding results.
The advent of the Indian Super League in 2014 helped Constantine discover more talent. Till then, the Indian football team was solely dependent on the I-League clubs to produce talents for the national team.
With as many as eight franchise-backed teams spending big, Indian players came in close contact with classy foreign players. It was a learning experience for sure and sharing the dressing room with world stars like Luis Garcia, Robbie Keane, Alessandro Del Piero, Alessandro Nesta, Elano Blumer, Tim Cahill, Dimitar Berbatov and Florent Malouda was a dream.
The corporatisation of Indian football was not just restricted to ISL. Bengaluru FC was a classic example of a team that received complete corporate support and fulfilled the conditions that would make them a complete professional unit.
Effectively, Bengaluru consistently defeated India’s heritage teams to win the traditional I-League and even joined the ISL from the 2017-18 season.
Bengaluru’s admission in the ISL served notice on the other big teams with major fan followings -- Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. Professionalism would be the order of the day.
With ISL becoming India’s premier league, India’s best talents like Udanta Singh, Anirudh Thapa, Sandesh Jhingan had a platform to display their wares. It regularly exposed them to quality competition.
"In my opinion, the ISL has made the players more confident," reckoned Bhaichung Bhutia. "I think competing with good players has definitely given them confidence."
With a strong bunch backing him up, it also helped Bengaluru’s Sunil Chhetri up his game and emerge as a talisman of sorts for the young Indian team.
India put together a decent run in 2015 and 2016, reaching the second round of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers and winning the 2015 SAFF Championship, consequently rising up to 135 in the FIFA Rankings.
A spotless 2017
The big year, however, came in 2017 as India remained unbeaten throughout the calendar year, drawing two and winning seven of their nine fixtures. The run also secured qualification to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.
India broke into the top 100 of the FIFA Rankings for the first time in 21 years in May of 2017 and reached 96th in July. They eventually ended the year in 105th position.
"Under Stephen Constantine, we not only improved our ranking but were competitive against top teams in the Asian Cup. He consistently raised the self-belief of the team," said Jeje Lalpekhlua.
In the lead up to the AFC Asian Cup in 2019, India faced some tough opponents in 2018 as part of their preparation. While their record wasn’t as spotless as 2017, India etched out some memorable results, including two goalless away draws against Oman and China, respectively.
The Blue Tigers also clinched the inaugural Intercontinental Cup that year, entering 2019 as the 97th ranked team in the world.
2019-20: AFC Asian Cup and Igor Stimac era
The Indian football team began its 2019 season with the AFC Asian Cup and beat a higher-ranked Thailand 4-1 in the first group stage game to record its maiden win at Asian football’s premier competition since 1964.
India lost to UAE 2-0 in the second match and heading into their final group stage game against Bahrain, needed a draw to progress to the knockout stage. The Indians put up a gritty display to hold their opponents to a 0-0 scoreline until the final minutes but came undone courtesy a late penalty.
The heartbreaking manner in which they exited the tournament prompted Constantine to step down from his head coach’s position shortly after the match.
With the All India Football Federation (AIFF) appointing Croatian World Cupper Igor Stimac as Constantine’s successor, it marked the beginning of a new era for Indian football.
Under the new head coach, India are still finding their feet and the results haven’t quite gone their way till now. But in September 2019, the Indian football team held Asian champions Qatar to a 0-0 draw in what was one of the most memorable results in Indian football history.
India ended 2019 in the 108th spot before international football was halted due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Indian national football team, however, rose to 104th rank towards the end of 2020.
Indian football stands at a crucial juncture and fans will hope that within the next couple of years, Stimac will do a Croatia and pilot the national team into the world top 100 again.