FIFA currently ranks India at 148 in world football. It’s not the highest that the country has been ranked, nor the lowest. India’s footballing nadir came in March last year when it stood at 173 and the best was a good two decades ago in February 2006 when it was placed 94th in the ranking list. But there is hope for change. The country is currently hosting the Asian Football Confederation Under-16 championship and next year will be hosting the Under-17 FIFA World Cup. As All India Football Federation (AIFF) President Praful Patel said, the World Cup will be a ‘new chapter in the history of Indian football’. It will be istoric, for two reasons: this is the first time that India will be hosting a football World Cup and by virtue of being hosts will be playing in one for the first time too. It’s a start, but the road ahead is going to be long.
AIFF has stepped onto that road with a positive attitude and introduced some changes. FIFA President Gianni Infantino dropped in on a rushed visit to Goa on Tuesday and said that while India in the past has been called sleeping giants he now sees India as passionate giants of football. It is time to convert that passion into energy and display it on the field.
Indian football needs a complete revamp if it is to come anywhere close to playing in a World Cup by qualifying for the championship rather than by being the host nation. Hosting the Under-17 World Cup should not be merely used as an opportunity to give budding Indian footballers some exposure but serve to bring talent into the game. Participation by being the host country is one thing, but can India aim to win the championship? It is a big ask from the Indian football team, but in sports host nations, passionate about a game, are known to have done much better than expected.
AIFF has a strategic plan for the development of football in place that involves all the stakeholders including the media and fans. Yes, the passion for the game exists, especially in Goa. It is for AIFF, and closer home GFA, to channelise that passion towards improving the quality of football. AIFF unveiled the new-look logo for the federation, prompting Patel to say that it is ‘contemporary, has energy and represents India’. While that is a good beginning, the change should, however, not be cosmetic and restricted to new designs in logos. The change should come on the field. This will involve going to the grassroots – the villages and schools. AIFF got it right with its Project 11 Million which is to reach out to 11 million children across the country. That is where the talent exists and that is where it will come from.
The Indian national team should also play more games against higher ranked teams. India played Puerto Rico, ranked 102, earlier this month in Mumbai and defeated it 4-1. The last time it had played a higher ranked non-Asian team was in 2011 but had lost to Zambia 5-0. In October 2014 it had lost to Palestine 3-2. The win against Puerto Rico helped it move up the rankings. That, improving its ranking, is important for Indian football.
AIFF should also capitalise on the statement of the Union Sports and Youth Affairs Minister Vijay Goel who said that the government is has been unwavering in its support for the FIFA Under 17 World Cup and that the championship ‘marks the beginning of India’s football journey’. The World Cup is now a year away, scheduled to be held in September-October next year. India’s new football journey begins now and that championship should be the first station on the voyage. The country just can’t let slip the opportunity of being host of a football world cup event and not improving its ranking in world football.