Indian National Football Team – How can we be Top 10 in Asia?
With India's World Cup qualifying campaign set to resume in a few days, Football Delhi President Shaji Prabhakaran assesses the pathways for India to become a powerhouse in Asian football.
Football in India will certainly reach a boom and dominate Asia in the future.
The standard of football in any country is reflected by its National Team's performances, results and trophies, and of course, FIFA Ranking.
Our best performances were in the 50s, 60s and early 70s. The Golden Era in Indian football was 1951-62. Those were the days when India could defeat all the current top teams from Asia, and now 50 years have passed and we haven't been able to break into the list of top ranked football nations in Asia. We last played in the Olympics in 1960 and we don't know when we will play next at the games.
India is currently ranked 105 in the world and 19th in Asia. In March 2015, we slipped to 173, which was the lowest since the advent of the FIFA Rankings. Our highest ranking was 94 in February 1996. We've risen above the days when we were only sinking down in the World Rankings. One positive thing is that our ranking hasn't gone below 110 since 2017. However, on average, we are ranked 131st (since the inception of FIFA Ranking in 1992). That means that we have made very little progress in the last 30 years.
Growing Fan Culture
India's large aspirational youth population and ever-growing football fanbase want to see India among the elite group without any delay. No one should find fault in them for their wish to see Indian football rise faster to greater heights. It is difficult for them to believe the reasons they keep hearing on why football in India is not progressing and reaching the World Cup stage.
Majority of young football followers in India have grown up watching big European Leagues and made European big clubs their own, this trend mainly started since early 90s. Many would blame these fans for their affiliation with European biggies as the majority don't have any link with local football in India. But can they be blamed for their intense following of big European clubs? They were not trapped by European clubs or leagues to follow these clubs, this happened due to the sheer vacuum in our footballing ecosystem in India. Except the Kolkata giants and few entities here and there, there was no option for fans but to fall in love with foreign entities, largely due to the quality of football on display and the presence of mega football stars.
In the last 5 years things have started to change and more fans are getting organised around Indian Super League (ISL) teams and the national team. This is a positive sign, and we will see greater energy and participation from fans in the coming years. We have this massive strength, our fan base, and we must have a solid plan to engage them to make them an integral part of our journey to reach the top of Asia.
Path to World Cup Goes Through Asia
India's football potential has been talked about ever since we started to follow football and particularly in the last 30 years with phrases like 'Indian football is a sleeping giant' becoming popular. There is no doubt that there is a realistic potential of Indian football to be a dominant force in Asia. But to reach there and consistently move up the ladder cannot just happen overnight. The path to World Cup participation goes through Asia and there are no shortcuts either to jump at one go to the top.
Strategy and Plans
We have to clearly identify gaps in our football structure and put medium to long term solutions to advance our football to the next level.
India has had a strategic plan to develop football since 2015. It looks like every aspect of football is planned and implemented following the strategic plan. We should be able to find answers to the following questions in the strategic and technical plans to satisfy ourselves that India is on course to reaching top 10 in Asia within a certain date.
The questions are: What is our national football philosophy as a nation? If we have one, is it reflected in practice and in game days consistently across the national football structure? What should be our playing style? What kind of playing style should we adopt, practice and play? Do we have a consistent coaching philosophy? Who should be our Head Coach? What should be the background and profile of our Head Coach? What is our National Team Development Plan from short term to long term? What kind of players should we develop as a country? Who should be driving the elite player development pathways? Is the coach education consistent with the national philosophy? Are we producing coaches based on our needs and national philosophy? The list goes on.
Domestic Competitive Structure
Our competitive structure is still way behind the best. Majority of top players in India are playing less than 30 competitive games in a season which is significantly below the global average. With a lower number of competitive games our players will not be adequately prepared to compete with the best in Asia.
We have to also work hard on developing a competitive youth structure. Our players would require better competitive exposure from a very young age, competitive structure at the youth level doesn't provide adequate number of competitive games and when competitive environment is missing at the youth level then it also has an impact on local coaches.
The whole youth development cycle remains non-competitive and thus, many talented coaches, like players, never get the opportunity to move up the ladder and eventually fade away. Can we name one player who can be a super star? Can we name one player who can be equal to Sunil Chhetri if not better? Sunil Chhetri, at 36, continues to inspire with his performances, and with a record 115 appearances and 72 goals for India, remains the inspiring figure on the pitch to deliver results for the country.
Head Coach – Team Builder
One of the most important aspects which will play a significant role in our entry to the top 10 in Asia will be the role of the Head Coach, National Team. This position is key, it is not about personality or the background of the coach, but what he is going to do with the team and how he is going to influence the football structure and how consistent he is going to be with the playing style and at the same time looking ahead with a long-term goal of India while fulfilling short to medium term goals.
We have seen many foreign coaches as Head Coach of the Indian National Team in the last 40 years, without going into the merit of each coach, the question we should ask ourselves is whether each of these coaches implemented a common football philosophy and put in place a consistent playing style? Without going into different coaching styles practised by all these coaches we have to visualise how India will play football with a consistent style and philosophy by 2030 or 2032 and thereafter.
A coach who can be here for the long-term and agree to deliver results and milestones on India's short term, medium term and long-term goals. A transparent deal, which makes clear to fans and stakeholders what is that a coach is supposed to deliver within his term as a Head Coach. When the expectation is clear, then the coach will also be under less pressure if he is on track with agreed objectives and key performance indicators. As long as the coach is meeting his KPIs, fans or in this matter no one will have issues.
Further, it is important to have a team of support staff based on the competence, track record and professionals who can support the coach and be responsible for their areas. Sometimes the area of support staff is ignored, they play vital roles, those assistant coaches are basically the ears and eyes of the head coach, at times their input and opinions result in taking key decisions, selection of players, training factors, tactics, strategy, game situation, game management and so on.
Elite Player Development Structure
Currently, the majority of elite players are coming through national youth team development pathways. This is precisely the serious limitation with our elite player development structure in India. More top clubs in India have to start investing into elite player development programmes with their respective clubs. Without clubs taking a lead role in scouting and developing players, India won't find all those talented players from its remotest corners. It is in the interest of clubs to invest in youth development and elite player development, and if we see such a scenario where clubs have become active in this aspect then the national team will be benefited immensely.
Competitors in Asia
We have to understand that those top Asian countries, dominating Asian football, are just not going to slip away from their respective positions to make space for Indian football to overtake them. We have to be strategic in our approach. Nothing is hidden from this world. What these countries are doing right as part of football development is an open book and performances on the pitch and strategies adopted by these countries to reach this level just didn't happen out of thin air, it is the result of consistent hard work with long term planning and taking right decisions with the involvement of competent human capital for long. Thus, for India to reach the top 10 in Asia won't be an easy journey but it will be a difficult and complex process.
There are numerous examples in Asia, how Korea Republic, Japan, Qatar, Iran, etc. have reached their current level and specially the success of Qatar as a football nation is most recent. From all these successful countries we can pick certain best practices which can be adopted in our system. To reach top 10 in Asia, India will have to move to the 79th position and above in the FIFA Rankings. Syria is the 10th ranked Asian country with world ranking 79. In simple words, India's target should be to reach the top 80 in the world rankings by 2027 or earlier than that with a plan of action.
From Asia only 11 countries have played World Cups till date and India can be motivated by the fact that DPR Korea, Kuwait and Indonesia are currently ranked below India in Asia thus there are only 8 countries ahead of India who were part of the World Cup in Asia. With 48 teams in the World Cup starting 2026, many Asian teams who never made it to the world cup have put a plan in place to reach top 10 in Asia to challenge for places at World Cup 2026 and beyond. It is an interesting scenario for Asia going into the 2026 World Cup qualification rounds, likely to start from 2023. It is just two years away and by the end of the 2026 WCQ campaign we might not reach the top 10, but we have to establish India as a serious top 10 contender in the 2027-30 cycle.
High Level Exposure
There is no substitute to playing high quality international games with higher ranked teams to gain competitive exposure and experience. Players' development and growth has a great impact with high quality competitions and if our players can regularly play with good teams then we will see our players reaching their top potential.
India getting direct AFC Champions League group stage slot and to see FC Goa playing in AFC Champions League was a good development considering encouraging performances against top Asian club sides. Being part of ACL means our players will get more and more exposure which would also help our national team. Glan Martins getting a call to the national team probable squad is a good success point due to AFC Champions League exposure and overall, ACL display from Indian players were exceptional.
Consistently qualifying for AFC Asian Cup will have to be a priority goal for India and with increased number of teams since last edition we won't be struggling to qualify any more for this continental competition and thus, the target should be, how India can move to the next round, one better from 2019 edition and reach to the quarter final stage by 2027 edition.
Route to Asia's Top is through South Asia
We shouldn't forget the fact that India is not an outright dominating force yet in South Asia, in our last two encounters with Bangladesh and Afghanistan we just managed to get draws and when we meet these two teams again, we will know exactly how much progress we have made in the last 15-18 months. We should not forget that the route to be part of elite in Asia goes through South Asia and for India to grow and win the hearts and minds of the fans we have to outright dominate South Asia first, and then we should move to the next target in Asia and thus ultimately, we will reach to the top 10 brackets in Asia.
Investment coming into football in India is still negligible, with ISL and India hosting the youth World Cup and other upcoming international competitions, no doubt investment coming into football has gone up but still it is largely at an insignificant level. The biggest example is when broadcasters shy away from broadcasting Indian national team games and we all have experienced it. With great struggle, last minute arrangements, we are finding broadcasters for the National Team games. This situation points to the fact that football is still struggling commercially, and television companies are not making profit or healthy returns from football in India. This does impact the whole value chain at the end, from players to everyone in the ecosystem.
Those who run football clubs, football associations will testify how hard it is to find funding for the game in India. This area will have to improve in the game well in time to fund investments in key areas, elite player development, youth competitions, football infrastructure, coach development, training, etc. Without timely investment our challenges will remain static and our struggle to reach top 10 in Asia will only get longer.
Prediction - India Top 10 in Asia
The earliest India can be in the top 10 in Asia is 2027, but before that we have to reach a few other important milestones. Specially qualifying for FIFA U17 and FIFA U20 World Cups by 2025. We have already played the FIFA U17 World Cup in 2017 as a host and now it is important to reach there through a qualifying route. The day we qualify for the U17 and U20 World Cups, India will have a different impression in the minds of the Asian football community. The progress in any field goes through a pathway and the Indian national team being top 10 in Asia can be achieved through multiple action points under a definitive strategy.
Our potential to be top 10 in Asia is very high and this is an achievable goal for Indian football within 5-7 years. Let's put our best foot forward to achieve this goal and build confidence in the system by communicating the steps and plans to achieve this goal. The system must reflect transparency, accountability, and openness in taking all the stakeholders together to strike the top 10 in Asia. A country of 1.4 billion doesn't lack anything for India to grow in global football through Asia. All the good luck.
Long Live Indian Football..!!
About the author: Mr. Shaji Prabhakaran is currently the President of Football Delhi, the governing body for the sport in the national capital. He also works as a consultant with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) as well as FIFA, and is a well-known personality in the Indian footballing circuit. A former coach himself, he has extensive experience in working at the grassroots level and has overseen a number of domestic and international football development projects.
(This article was first published on the author's official website: shajiprabhakaran.com)