A 1-2 loss at the hands of Kyrgyzstan away ended our AFC Qualification process and our 14 game unbeaten run. It had to end sooner or later, and while I am disappointed with both the result, and the end of this historic run, it is time to move on. We have 10 months to start preparing for the Asian Cup Finals in the UAE in January 2019 and there is a lot to do.
Going forward we have to understand a couple of things. Firstly we need to prepare well and ensure that come January we have a fully fit and competitive team. To do that, we need to have competition among the players. We had in our last squad 11 under-23 players, which again shows you that we are developing players and getting them to pressure senior players for places in the squad.
However, just because the player is there, that does not mean he is ready. There is a huge gap from our domestic leagues to the International arena and it takes time to make the change. If we throw in a player too soon he could have a bad game, lose his confidence, and then we will have to wait and see how he recovers - or if he recovers. By giving them a few minutes here and there, it allows them to adjust to the pace and quality he is going to face at international level.
I know many people want this player or that player, and I understand everyone wants to see the player they like in the team, but it is not always possible. In our last game we started Ruattara who started for the National Team for the first time, and overall I though he did okay. Thapa came on and did well, as did Jerry. Udanta was another one – so that’s four under-23s involved. In our previous game against Mynamar, Germanpreet, Jerry and Udanta started, with Thapa coming in off the bench. So we are slowly giving them time and experience in international games, in the hope that come January they have some experience and we are not going to the unknown.
Of course we want to win those games before the finals, but we also need to make sure we are giving the young players their opportunity so, come the finals, the afore-mentioned players will hopefully be regular players in the senior team. I would also add there are several more players from the U23s that are also very close to breaking through.
No doubt winning in Kyrgyzstan would have been great, and we would have gone to our highest ever FIFA ranking, but we finished top of the group and that is the first time India has ever done that. On the rankings, let me give a small explanation - as many of you have asked me and some of you don’t know how it works.
There is a mathematical formula that is involved and some of the variables involved are Strength of Confederation. So if you play a team from UEFA, and you beat them, it is worth more than beating a team from your own confederation. If the game is in the World Cup you get more points from winning that game, because of the importance of the competition. So when we play Laos and Nepal and win in a qualifier, it gives us a certain number of points. However if we lose that game - even in a friendly - we are going to lose points because of their FIFA rankings.
If we want to play China in a friendly, we are below China, so they look at the game and say ‘Okay, if we play and lose to India, we will lose points and go down in the ranking.’ Even a draw would lower their rankings, so they don’t want to play us - the same way we don’t want to play other teams that are below us. The problem is, we need games and we must have a regular number of games during the season so that we are not inactive for two or three months. It is vital that we play, albeit against teams that we know we are going to beat. I really hope that explains a little about the FIFA rankings.
The other thing about the rankings is that, if you haven’t played for a while you will fall as teams around you are playing. So New Zealand, who have most of their players playing in Europe, are below us - because they don’t play too many games in the International window.
The rankings are only important in two areas for me.
1) The higher you are, the more chance you have of not going into the pre-qualifiers, like we were doing in 2015 when I arrived.
2) Your positioning in pots for the AFC and FIFA competitions draw is sometimes important. We could for example be in pot 3, which means we avoid certain teams.
Going forward, we have already sent out correspondence to teams for future friendly games and of course the Intercontinental Cup will provide some very stiff competition. These are the games that we will look to get experience for the younger players, and deal with playing bigger teams. The pressure we will be under will all help us prepare for the Asian Cup. By playing the so-called bigger teams it will show us where we are in terms of development and naturally we are going to be under pressure for long periods of time in those games.
We must learn to deal with this and be able to respond so it is vital that we get the experience of playing these sides and understand what is going to face us in the Asian Cup. The draw is in a few weeks, and once that is done we will reach out to other associations to try and book some games between now and January.
Finally to all of our fans: after a very long time we have again qualified for a major event and deservedly so. It was for sure a struggle - a struggle that could not have been done without you the fans supporting us through thick and thin. We have achieved our goals, now we need to buckle down and prepare. We, India, needs to be at these events every time not every once in a blue moon. Remember in 2015 we were 173 in the world, had not won the SAFF, and had a squad with an average age of 31, compared to now which is 24. We have achieved our highest ranking, 97, for a very long time and we have a group of players who are hungry to have success with the Indian National Team. None of this happens without you, and of course the AIFF. So get behind the players, and the team, and let’s go to the Asian Cup and cause some problems!