Beggars Can’t Be Choosers – India ignoring PIO players is a disservice to fans

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The Euros and the Copa America, two of the biggest international football competitions are currently underway. With every passionate rendition of a national anthem, we Indian fans are time and again reminded of our long-held desire to see our own nation playing in such massive fixtures against top-tier opponents. 

With every inspiring underdog performance, such as Albania’s against Italy and Croatia, we feel hope that one day India can also compete against the odds in the Asian Cup (or dare I say it, the World Cup). But just as we allow that thought to creep into our minds (long before Albania’s early lead slips away), we are reminded that just a few months ago we finished with the worst record in the Asian Cup and squandered the easiest of opportunities to progress into the third round of World Cup Qualifying.

India
Dilan Markanday warming up ahead of a Spurs first team game in 2021.

We too are underdogs, yes, but we are ranked 124th in the world. We are under-under-under dogs. If football in India progresses at this bureaucratic rate, the dream of belting out Jana Gana Mana with pride, before a big World Cup or Asian Cup knockout encounter, will sadly never materialize. 

While we look at the potential of Indian football in futuristic terms, there is an instant, obvious solution that can change India’s fortunes overnight: allowing OCI (Overseas Citizen of India) and PIO (People of Indian Origin) players to represent the country. 

Sunil Chhetri – the greatest forward ever to grace the Indian shirt – was cruelly denied a chance to play for QPR in the English Championship in 2009, due to reasons outside his control. However, there are multiple players eligible to represent India (by FIFA’s regulations) who currently play in the Championship and even in European first divisions. There is no telling whether these players will ever reach the pedigree of Chhetri, as success in club football does not necessarily translate to the international level, but it is inexplicable to ignore these resumes.

Dilan Markanday, 22, Winger

India

Born to Indian parents in the London Borough of Barnet, Markanday is a Tottenham Hotspur academy graduate who plays his club football for Blackburn Rovers in the English Championship. In 2021, Markanday came on as a sub in Spurs’ Conference League encounter with Vitesse, making him the first player of Indian descent to appear for the Spurs senior men’s team. Since then, Markanday has made 24 appearances for Blackburn and has spent time with Aberdeen on loan in the Scottish first division.

Yan Dhanda, 25, Midfielder

India

A highly rated attacking midfielder who has openly expressed his desire to play for India, Dhanda was born in the West Midlands to an English mother and a father of Punjabi descent. Dhanda spent his childhood in the West Bromwich Albion and Liverpool academies before kick starting his professional career with Swansea City in the EFL Championship. On his senior debut, away to Sheffield United in 2018, Dhanda scored the winner (in a 2 – 1 victory) with his very first touch. The upcoming season will mark Dhanda’s first with Hearts of Midlothian in the Scottish Premiership.

Danny Batth, 33, Defender

India

A veteran centre-back of English and Punjabi descent, Batth holds an OCI card and even met ex-Indian head coach Stephan Constantine, while exploring the possibility of playing for India. However, Batth, who spent ten years at Wolves from 2009 to 2019, including a year as captain, was left frustrated by India’s residency rules and passport regulations. Batth has made 149 appearances in the Championship, and has 14 goals to his name.

Sarpreet Singh, 25, Midfielder

India

While not eligible to play for India anymore, due to his multiple caps for the All Whites, Singh is an example of what India can miss out on with the present regulations. Born in Auckland, New Zealand to parents of Punjabi descent, Singh’s performances with New Zealand’s youth national teams drew attention from European scouts. In 2018, Singh signed for Bayern Munich and made two appearances for the Bavarians before being loaned out to Bundesliga 2 clubs FC Nuremberg and Jahn Regensburg. Singh spent the 2023-24 season in the German second tier with Hansa Rostock. In the 2018 Intercontinental Cup, Singh played a significant role in New Zealand’s 2 – 0 victory over India.

Manprit Sakaria, 27, Winger

India

Hailing from a Punjabi family, but born in Austria, Sakaria plays for Sturm Graz in the Austrian Bundesliga. During Graz’s Cup winning campaign in 2022-23, Sakaria was the competition’s leading scorer (6) and scored a brace in the 2 – 0 victory over Rapid Vienna in the final. Sakaria has only been capped by Austria once, which means he is still technically eligible to represent India, if the country of his heritage changes its stance.

While these are the cream of the crop, multiple players of Indian heritage are coming up in academies and reserve teams worldwide including Caylan Vickers (19, Brighton & Hove Albion), Brandon Khela (19, Birmingham City), Daniel Singh (17, RSC Anderlecht), Sonny Singh (20, Stoke City), Riley Delgado (17, LA Galaxy), William Andiyappan (19, Tottenham Hotspur) and Rajdeep Palit (19, Hull City).

The reason the likes of these players have not represented India is that in 2008, the Ministry of Sport and Youth Affairs released a circular instructing all national sports federations that any sportsperson representing India at the international level must hold a valid Indian passport. Since India does not offer dual citizenship, OCI/PIO card holders must revoke their foreign passport and reside in India for 12 months, before obtaining an Indian passport and becoming eligible to play for the country. 

Sadly, this is not a realistic solution for OCI/PIO footballers as losing foreign citizenship can cause complications with work permit regulations, which in turn can prevent them from playing for their respective European clubs (for the same reason Chhetri was unable to play for QPR).

Numerous athletes, across sports, have been impacted by this law and some have tried, in vain, to overturn it. Karm Kumar, an Indian squash player who was born and grew up in India but held a British passport through his father, appealed his exemption from the 2010 Commonwealth Games probables list by the SRFI (Squash Racquets Federation of India) in the Delhi High Court, but unfortunately for Indian Sport, the judge upheld the rule in 2010. 

This situation is perfectly summed up by Igor Stimac’s comments post his sacking as the head coach of the Blue Tigers. 

India’s football is in prisons. No involvement of OCI players. Without PIO/OCI, football development in India is going to be difficult. It’ll take at least two decades for developing world class players from India.”

I’m not sure if there is any other country which is not allowing players of their origin to represent their country.” 

It is a huge handicap because there are many good players of Indian origin playing in the top leagues of Europe. So it could be a big help if we speak about bigger achievements.” 

India
Caylan Vickers, born in 2004 and eligible to represent India, was signed by Brighton recently.

It is a shame to ignore the rewards of a massive expatriate population

While Stimac’s comments may be seen as a resentful reaction to his recent firing, one cannot deny that he is voicing a whole lot of common sense. Very few countries keep players of their origin from representing them in international football, and none who are as needy as India. And since India has a diaspora population larger than any other, a lot of ripe talent is being left underutilized, while Indian football remains famished.

If it is already a shame that the most populous country in the world cannot field a competent eleven to overcome Qatar and Bahrain, countries with a combined population of 4.2 million (the same as Lucknow). It is a bigger shame to ignore the rewards of a massive expatriate population, that reaches far and wide into every corner of the planet.

There are countless British Indians in Premier League academies, German Indians in Bundesliga academies, American Indians in MLS academies, and so on, many of whom are not good enough to play for their foreign national team but are above and beyond the level of the current Indian squad. In what could be a win-win alliance, the Sports ministry’s regulations have reduced it to a mutual loss. 

India
Morocco fielded 14 foreign-born players in the FIFA World Cup 2022

Football, being the most popular sport in a globalizing world, has become extremely competitive, and every nation, big or small, is trying to gain an edge on its competition through every available resource. Taking the 2022 World Cup for example, 16.5% (one in every six) of the players were representing teams they were not born in. Morocco, which won hearts worldwide with a historic run to the semi-finals, beating Spain, Portugal, and Belgium on the way, included 14 foreign born players (all through ancestral connections) – the most among any team.

Croatia, which lost in the other semi-final, fielded 7 foreign-born players, all, again, eligible through parental roots. Had either of these nations forced these players to give up their foreign citizenship to represent them, chances are many of them would have declined and the golden generation of Moroccan and Croatian football would have never come to fruition.

Some countries, like Qatar, took things a step further and utilized FIFA’s naturalization rule (which states that a player can represent a country if he/she has lived continuously for at least five years after reaching the age of 18 on the territory of the relevant association) to include seven players who have no connection to the country. Only four nations comprised of purely locally born players – Brazil, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea.

Iraq had up to nine foreign-born players in their squad for the AFC Asian Cup earlier this year. They ended up leading their group, which included teams like Japan, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Despite lacking top-tier infrastructure, Iraq has consistently performed well at the Asian level and remains in the running for a spot in the 2026 FIFA World Cup. Indonesia has recently begun naturalizing foreign-born players interested in representing their national team. Although Indonesia does not permit dual citizenship, the government is collaborating with the Indonesian Football Association to enable certain players to compete for the nation. The House of Representatives reviews each player, and after an oath-taking ceremony, they can play for Indonesia. Over eleven players have been naturalized in a very short period.

In the women’s game, 53 American nationals (who held dual citizenship) represented teams other than the United States in the 2023 World Cup. The breakup is as follows: Argentina (1), Canada (1), Haiti (5), Ireland (5), Jamaica (11), The Netherlands (1), Nigeria (4), New Zealand (1), Panama (2), Philippines (18), Switzerland (1), and South Korea (1).

These countries, realizing the quality of female footballers trained in the state-of-the-art youth club and collegiate programs in the United States, made sure to bolster their squad with such eligible players. The Indian diaspora population in the US is nearly 5 million and there certainly is plenty of talent waiting and hoping to be explored.

Among countries who have failed to consistently qualify for World Cups, like Jamaica, Panama, and Costa Rica, are employing professional scouts to dig deep into the family lineage of youngsters in European academies to identify those who can be called up to represent them.

In this competitive recruiting atmosphere in International Football, India choosing not to accept OCI/PIO players, despite its sorry condition, is a travesty. 

India
Yan Dhanda on the ball for Swansea City of the EFL Championship in 2020.

Indian Football Needs More Than Organic Growth to Succeed

A common argument supporting the present regulations is that accepting OCI/PIO players will only be a short-term gain with no lasting impact for local Indian talent. This is a futile argument because India is a country whose people’s interest in a sport is fueled by past success – cricket’s popularity blossomed after the ICC World Cup triumph in 1983, before which hockey held precedence owing to the men’s national team’s Olympic success in the first half of the 20th century, and following which badminton is widely played due to the exploits of Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu, and so on.

If Indians see the Indian national football teams playing against the likes of Japan, Germany, and Brazil, or Indian representation in European top-flights, there will be a massive surge of interest which will ripple into the formation of a huge talent pool, as we see in cricket. The presence of players with European club experience can also bring valuable insight and knowledge into the Indian dressing room, and maybe even unlock new doors for their local counterparts.

If Indian football tries to ignore this upside and grow talent in an unreasonably organic way, it will fall behind, as we are seeing now, in the rat race to international footballing distinction. 


Follow IFTWC for more updates on Indian football.

Sriram Chidambaram
Sriram Chidambaramhttp://iftwc.com
A sports tragic, whose obsession percolates into the obscure world of Indian Football. My affiliations lie with the Blue Tigers, BFC, Servette, and Chelsea (in that order).

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