Apart from some of the usual suspects, many young Indian players have hogged the limelight in the 2020-21 Indian Super League, against all odds. With the coaches also showing immense faith in young blood, we can expect the new crop to take the Indian football storm in the near future.
The current Indian Super League has made one aspect clear without any doubt - that India’s emerging crop has the potential to take their game to the next level if groomed with competence. While some of them are yet to break into the larger scene, many have already put a step-forward. Surprisingly, with less experience, they have been able to nullify the need for the ‘set’ of veteran Indian players in the circuit, with the managers also putting immense faith in their youngsters to squeeze out the best.
But, for a fact, it’s quite normal, as not many players like Sunil Chhetri have the tenacity to maintain their class even at a ripe old age. But, what should be noted is the fact that there is a vast difference in quality between the generations, especially if compare them at the peak.
Even though it is very early days, the fresh inflow of talents from the Northeastern region has surpassed what they’ve provided in the past - quality-wise. That Lallianzuala Chhangte and Udanta Singh have been brought into the national unit as a support system for Sunil Chhetri’s ageing legs at 18 and 19 respectively, speaks for itself.
Graduated from different backgrounds, both have a unique intent to their game, one that is far more refined than their senior Euegeneson Lyngdoh, who made a late entry at the top level. Fortunately for India, the duo can serve Indian football for a longer time.
For a fact, Lyghdoh, even though he is far more experienced, has been out of sorts and his injury problems have made it impossible for him to thrive at the highest level, as he has featured in two matches for SC East Bengal this season. Jeje Lalpekhlua - one of India’s most successful forwards has gone down the same road as his former International teammate.
As for other players in the same generation - the story remains the same, with players around late-20s and early 30s being turned a deaf ear to, even if the ‘experience’ factor makes a strong case for themselves. When young Rahim Ali’s coordination with his teammates up-front is a treat to watch, why would Chennaiyin FC use Jeje Lalpekhlua to fill-in? Considering the fact the Mizoram-based player has suffered immensely with injuries and he isn’t getting any younger, Rahim’s best days are ahead of him.
Ironically, SC East Bengal - operating with a smaller budget and a late entrant into the ISL, have lured in unsold players like Jeje Lalpekhlua, Balwant Singh, Bikash Jairu, Raju Gaikwad, CK Vineeth and Eugeneson Lyngdoh - all Internationally tried and tested players and younger than Sunil Chhetri. Even if they were in their prime, the current batch would have given them a run for their money. The difference in class is quite visible and we cannot ignore that, although it boils down to certain factors
Now, there are two ways to look at it - the Indian Super League factor and the Grooming factor.
The Indian Super League factor
This has a direct correlation with the above case, with the former group not fortunate enough to brush shoulders with quality overseas players nor avail best facilities for the lion's share of their career. Even though they were top-rated players back in their heydays and tapped the most expensive contracts in the I-League - they lacked playing against or with quality foreigners, excluding their time on International duty.
Let’s take the case of Arnab Mondal - a centre-back scouted from the I-League - the launchpad for the national team back then. Having made his debut for the Blue Tigers back in 2013, he faded away after featuring in the ISL for a few seasons - and is now nowhere to be seen.
A certain Sandesh Jhinghan - one of a generation talent burst into the scene during the inaugural ISL and has been a stalwart since then, having improved his game inch-by-inch during his Kerala Blasters FC days, sharing the same dressing room with Premier League veteran David James. Quality-wise, the Kerala-based player is miles ahead of his compatriot at the centre-back position. While the age difference between the two players is four years, Mondal was done by the age of 29, while Jhingan is still at his peak at 27.
But, the development of the player was impossible without proper exposure and grooming, with the Kerala-based footballer enjoying the fruit of ISL ever since.
The Grooming Factor
Largely applicable to the AIFF Elite Academy batch that was garnished for the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup event, the kids have shown that the fruits of proper exposure is ‘sweet.’ Amarjit Kiyam Singh, a cool and composed central midfielder has shown immense maturity - that has earned him a national call-up. While he delivers the goods in a nonsense manner, why would a team favour a player like Lalrindika Ralte (16 caps for India) over him? Quite justifiably, the latter is now plying his trade in the I-League, even though he is just 28!
Suresh Wangjam - a product of the Bengaluru FC youth academy is doing wonders for the senior team, while Apuia - the Northeast United FC star is bossing his way alongside Mauritania-based footballer Khassa Camara in the playmaking area. What’s most important is that the young guns have to make up for the lack of experience - an area where they have passed with flying colours.
Narender Gahlot - a Chandigarh football academy graduate showed nerves of steel when he debuted for India in the 2019 International Cup, also netting one of the goals in the tourney. Jeakson Singh was shuffled (position-wise) like anything by Kerala Blasters FC coach Kibu Vicuna in the entire season, with the youngster performing each task with equal competence. The change of mindset and the ability to adjust to situations is the x-factor that keeps them one-foot ahead, which has changed the landscape of Indian football in recent times.
The Change in Scenario
Even though the younger generation will find it tough to shoulder the heavy burden, the room for improvement and the pressure will help shape them into better players which would only benefit Indian football especially if we look at the bigger picture. With India already out of contention of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the 2023 AFC Asian Cup and the 2026 FIFA World Cup is the primary aim now.
And, in all probabilities, they are better equipped to become better footballers and sustain themselves till their age turns at least 30, following which the scouting cycle repeats itself to take Indian football forward. Till then, the ‘sleeping giants of Indian football’ should be optimistic about the artillery in the arsenal.
As the current season of the ISL draws to a close, we might see the youngsters sweeping the Indian contingent completely in the near future, which unfortunately does mean an end to the veterans who are still desperately trying to cling on to any hope they have. With the players already having a taste of reality at a relatively young age, albeit the peaking would be much faster compared to their seniors and would also emerge as better footballers - a phenomenon to savour for their respective club employees and the national team.