The 2020-21 Indian Super League will see only four foreigners in the starting XI for every team, which must include a player from an AFC nation. While this was a move that should have been taken earlier, it's better than never and the returns set will benefit Indian football - slowly and steadily.
While, the first edition of the Indian Super League was more of an attempt to revive Indian football, it also served as a launchpad for domestic footballers to get a taste of high-quality game time. Yet, we cannot undermine the fact that all narrows down to one aspect - development. Indeed, grabbing the attention was a stepping stone to achieve it but looking at things from only a business perspective would eventually have perished the whole effort.
Seven years later, after establishing a foothold among the Indian audience, the organisers have finally taken a step for the greater good, setting the tone to move forward. No more will it be a glamour show-off as the ISL won’t be relying on foreigners from now with seven Indian players in the starting XI - it’s now game on!
Why the existing policy hindered the growth of Indian football
The decision was always beating around the bush, with most of the top Asian leagues already adopting a 3+1 foreign rule (3 from any country and 1 from an AFC nation). Iran, South Korea, Oman, and the Philippines are few of the nations to have already injected the norm into their systems.
It was inevitable from the ISL standpoint, if they wanted any sort of development to take place on the horizon. Nevertheless, there are perks and snags attached to every alternation, which brings us to the fact why the upcoming season will be so very different as compared to the previous ones.
From the onset, big-money Indian footballers were reserved for the most strategic positions on a football field. While the visitors were subject to immense game time, aspiring domestic talents in a similar role hardly stepped into the greenery. They either warmed the bench or filled up uneventful minutes towards the end of the game, when the prime stars’ tired legs needed some rest.
It’s only the side-backs, or maybe the wingers to some extent that coaches kept void to depute domestic players. That’s straight hits at the reason why the nation has failed to develop top-brass players in ISL era. With the set equilibrium gone for a toss, the managers have to sit for brain-storming sessions - to formulate the perfect playing XI.
For instance, the coveted centre-forward position has been constantly booked by overseas players, which has hurt to a level that the national team will be without a quality striker once the legendary Sunil Chhetri hangs up his boots. As grave as that may sound, its the truth! For instance, Farukh Chaudhary, after seeing most of the early half of the 2020-21 ISL season on the bench, switched to Jamshedpur FC in the January transfer window.
Is this what the league was launched for? To see domestic players swap sides mid-season in search of game time? It was from his boots that India opened the scoring in the last international match against Nepal!
Initial hiccups which the ISL might encounter
In spite of the fact that the first-string Indian players do get to play for adequate time in the ISL, the pace of their ripening age is such that the next batch of players won’t be ready if not groomed properly from now on. The transition would go haywire, eventually leading to a slump in Indian football. Thanks to the realisation (even though late), 11 additional Indian players will start in their respective matches and that's already a significant step-up. But let’s not hope for miracles.
The apparent quality set by the five-foreigner policy might take a dip initially, but that gap has to be bridged. For a fact, the managers follow a template in which the teams play with two central defenders, one/two midfielders and one/two wingers/forwards as their five foreigners. Sacrificing any one of those will automatically dent the full-proof process, but there’s no harm in putting in local lads and allowing them to develop their game along the way.
It goes without saying that the teams would have to change their foreign policy completely. Sheikh Sahil, a midfielder who’s shown immense promise in the I-League for Mohun Bagan, was inducted into the newly formed ATK-Mohun Bagan and hardly played one-full match last season. It’s this bracket of players that’ll benefit from the new change as franchises would be forced to revamp their youth structure and developmental sides, which in itself is a great push.
The Uzbek League, which allows five foreigners in the starting XI, is a powerhouse in Asia but still hasn't managed to win the AFC Asian Cup even once, or even qualify for a FIFA World Cup. On the contrary, their rankings have constantly dipped with them recently falling from 62 in 2016 to 84th. It showcases the fact that having more foreigners doesn't necessarily promise development!
When Indian football might enjoy the fruits
However, there’s no point in tweaking if you're not getting results but with fewer overseas players to ease the burden, even the Indian regulars would be forced to shoulder the added responsibility and step up their game - all of which counts when the time to represent their nation arrives. Speaking of which, India’s hot-and-cold show against a lowly lying Nepal side recently was no less than an embarrassment.
To justify the rankings and enjoy supremacy over them convincingly, for starters, the immediate remedy is giving more playing time to Indian players and shaping them accordingly. Albeit, it would be foolish to expect eye-soothing in the ISL from all Indian players instantly, but better learn here than wobble up at the grand stage. The winning motive has always come as a road-block to use Indian players in key roles, but the new role just snatches away such luxuries.
The SAFF Championship will be staged ahead of the ISL, so there’s no way the changes are going to reflect on the results, however, we can at least hope for a change by the time India features in the 2023 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers. Liston Colaco, the find of the 2020-21 ISL, should be able to rise up to the occasion when by next year - something that only ample playing time in the league can ensure. Because after all, how much longer do we expect Sunil Chhetri to save the Indian football team?
The absence of centre-back Sandesh Jhinghan instantly puts the Indian camp in a spot of bother, as there’s no genuine replacement to even do away with for a single match. Chinglensana Singh and Adil Khan are possible options but inconsistent displays from them again brings back us to the same problem.
The dependency stage has passed, it’s now time for the Indians to dominate the ISL. With due respect to everyone, what a wonderful feeling it would be to see an Indian striker in contention for the golden boot!