Thursday 18 May 2017, 05:35

Constantine-led India return to top 100

  • India reach 100 on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking

  • They are just six spots shy of their best-ever position achieved 21 years ago

  • India have developed during coach Stephen Constantine’s second spell in charge

India is not a country usually associated with football headlines. But while the majority of Asian teams remained inactive, the world's second most populous nation moved up a place up in May's FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking to 100. Despite the slightest of moves, they are one of only two teams from their continent that gained ground in the past month - the other being Jordan, who made an identical single-point move to 109.

All the more significant is the fact that the Indians reached a century in the global pecking order for the first time in over two decades. India has twice previously stormed into the top one hundred on the world ladder. They reached 99 in the world ranking's inaugural year in 1993, before achieving an all-time high of 94 in February 1996. But the next two decades saw the South Asians in a downward spiral, slipping all the way to their lowest ebb of 173 in March 2015.

Improvement under Constantine From there, though, the Indians have since seen their footballing fortunes revived. It took them just three months to bounce from 141 in June 2015, largely courtesy of a 26-place move following their 2-0 aggregate victory against Nepal in 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ preliminary round qualifying. Then came a brief slump due to a series of disappointing results in the second qualifying round - India lost seven out of eight matches which shattered their World Cup hopes - condemning them to 162 by April 2016.

The World Cup qualifying failure was hard but it did little in denting the team's aspiration for progress. They beat Laos 7-2 on aggregate in June in a 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualifier as they soared to 152 in July. They continued the momentum thereafter, with a 3-0 friendly win against Bhutan and a 4-1 defeat of Puerto Rico being the driving force for their rise to 129 at the start of this year.

Needless to say, India's ascendance in the Ranking was a relatively accurate reflection of the team's progress made under Stephen Constantine. Having coached India from 2002 to 2005, the Englishman was given back the reins at the start of 2015. Despite the setbacks against the likes of Iran, Oman, Turkmenistan and Guam in Asia's second qualifying round for Russia 2018, his second stint in charge of India has seen progress made.

"A quick look back at 2016 saw our Indian National Team make significant steps forward both in the FIFA rankings and on the pitch," the 54-year-old former Sudan and Rwanda manager wrote in his blog in January. "We started the new year ranked 129th - our highest position for ten years. And we won nine from the last 11 games."

Asian Cup ambitions  More encouraging results were to come, though. Constantine’s charges began the year with a bang, edging Cambodia 3-2 in a friendly in March before overcoming hosts Myanmar 1-0 in the Asian Cup third qualifying round opener. Top-striker Sunil Chhetri scored the match-winning goal in stoppage time as India set the pace in a group which also features Kyrgyzstan and Macau.

The victory, their first in Myanmar in 64 years, catapulted the team 31 places to 101 in April and thus laid the foundation for their return to the top 100 this month. “When I took over in my second stint, I had said that there will be will good days and there will be bad days,” Constantine said.

“We needed time to establish our character and needed to change some of our habits to get the team to play to a level that suits India. There is still much to do and perhaps the most important is to qualify for the Asian Cup.”