Ridiculous or Rational – The potential return of five foreigners to Indian Football

Indian Football

Indian Super League, since 2014, had allowed as many as six foreign players in the starting eleven each season, but the rules were later revised to five players in 2017 and finally to four last season. In general, you would expect a football federation with a long-term vision for the national team to reduce the number of foreigners from four to fewer as it progresses, but the All India Football Federation is now proposing to raise the number back to five. The AIFF doesn’t need to comply with the newly passed AFC’s rule of 5+1 foreigners, but it will likely do so, with the clubs expected to be enthusiastic about the prospect as well. 

Indian Football

“They (AFC) are trying to bridge the gap between European and Asian clubs and that will need an increase in the number of foreigners in the teams,” says football pundit Pradhyum Reddy. It can be hypothesized that the AIFF believes the same and wants to abide by the rules so that their teams can remain competitive in the AFC competitions.

“They (AIFF) want their clubs to be competitive at the continental level but there are only one or two clubs from the ISL who participate in AFC competitions,” Eelco Schattorie, former head coach of Kerala adds.

However while we are discussing about competitiveness at the AFC level, we have Uzbekistani team Al Nasaf which thrashed the best defensive team in ISL by six-goals-to-nil, with only one foreign player in their starting eleven. To put things in perspective, Uzbekistan is ranked 85 on FIFA rankings, just 19 places above the Indian National Team.

The priority of Indian football, given the current circumstances, should be the national team, followed by helping domestic clubs to be successful in AFC competitions. With the ridiculous developmental systems currently in place and the increasing number of foreigners being allowed, it is unlikely that the former will improve soon, as has been said for the past decade. 

The teams will be looking forward to this change however – SC East Bengal, for two consecutive seasons, have failed to recruit quality domestic players and have finished in the bottom half of the table. The financially strong clubs like Mumbai City or ATK Mohun Bagan are known to buy top domestic players at inflated prices, which in turn proves to be detrimental to the financially weak clubs.

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After getting a lucrative offer from Bagan for Liston Colaco, Hyderabad could not think about not selling him, while Chennaiyin’s starboy Lallianzuala Chhangte declined to renew his contract with Chennai and joined the Islanders. The same applies to Odisha FC’s skipper Vinit Rai, who was “loaned” out to Mumbai mid-season in a move which surprised many. 

The clubs which have the financial backing will sign the majority of the limited domestic talent available, and the other ones will have to rely on the five foreigners to get them moving.

The limited pool of domestic talents means that agents will churn out massive deals for their players as well. The salaries of as many as five goalkeepers in the Indian Super League are more than ₹1CR, despite their performance on the field being inferior to their demands. It is not surprising, therefore, if clubs opt for foreign keepers with lower demands.

An agent who did not wish to reveal his name opines, “The demand for Indian center-backs and midfielders will decrease, as will their price. With the four foreigners rule, teams preferred having an Indian center-back in the eleven, but that is unlikely to happen next season. Same holds true for midfielders.”

The agent adds, “The massive salary demands that goalkeepers had in the previous season will also not happen again. If any club cannot fit the keeper’s demands in their budget, they will opt for a foreigner. Only 2 or 3 keepers will keep making the money that they are making now, but the rest may not.”

Indian Football

In addition to goalkeepers, most of the current national team players are earning more than ₹1CR per year, which most clubs consider an unreasonable rate. The demand of U23 players as well is staggering, making it hard for clubs to have a good pool of domestic talent to choose from.

There is currently a disequilibrium in the Indian players market due to the foreigner rule that has existed for the past decade, and the only way to restore the equilibrium is to add more quality players to the domestic pool. The current imbalance of demand and supply makes the financial as well as qualitative prospect of having five foreign players in the playing eleven even more exciting for Indian clubs.

Among the eleven clubs competing in the highest division of Indian football, very few have their academy, and if they do, they have limited capabilities. A player becoming a regular in the first team after emerging from the youth ranks of an ISL club happens once in a blue moon.

The ISL has rules that make “two” U21 players mandatory to be included in the matchday squad of 18 players. Last season, clubs scrambled to get some U21 players on their roster and as the season progressed, those players had little chance to play thanks to the limited number of games available. It is understandable what effect it will have on the “developmental” players if another foreign player joins the fray.

Indian players seldom play more than 20 games a year (20 games in 365 days, a game every “18” days), whereas the national team regulars may be expected to play thirty. The number is horrifically low for the players of a national team which aims to compete with the powerhouses of Asia, and injecting more foreigners into the league will only reduce their game time than it was already.

Indian Football

One of the greatest managers of football, Pep Guardiola, once said, “The guy who plays in the holding midfield, central defence, the strikers, all the positions in the middle of everything are so important.” Unsurprisingly, foreigners are preferred at these crucial positions by ISL teams, thus reducing Indian players to mere supporting roles. For champions Mumbai, Mourtada Fall and Hernan Santana alongside Ahmed Jahouh were the undisputed starters at those key positions. The central positions in the defence and midfield of runners-up ATK Mohun Bagan belonged to Tiri and Carl McHugh. Onaindia, Joao Victor, and Edu Bedia, Ivan Gonzalez, and James Donachie were used by Hyderabad and FC Goa extensively.

It goes without saying that also among the top minute earners were the foreign number nines and attacking midfielders of these teams. Thus, the return of five foreign players to Indian Football will yet again stunt the development of domestic players playing in these key positions, thus breaking the spine of the national team.

Bhaichung Bhutia shared his views on the foreigner rule in ISL few days ago stating that the quality of the league is low and they should bring back the five foreigners rule, but later contradicts himself saying that he believes there should be two or three Indian players in the top five scorers list.

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Indian No-9s have rarely got their fair share of chance in the playing eleven and Bhaichung’s recommendation of adding another foreigner means that his dream of seeing two or three Indians in the top five goal scorers list will not be realized any time soon. Despite the foreigners limitation, Ogbeche-Siverio, Krishna-Williams, Stewart-Chima and, Vazquez-Diaz have been the options upfront for the top four teams and it is very unlikely that No-9s like Kiyan Nassiri will have the opportunity to display their abilities in the upcoming seasons as well.  

“Playing alongside good players improves you and having foreign players around will help Indian players. However, it is impossible to have an all-Indian league because that will not help us progress at all,” explains Pradhyum Reddy. Considering the Indian Football Project is “still” in a nascent stage, the ISL will require more quality football to attract viewers. It’s pretty obvious from all the statistics in the league that the current domestic players can’t offer that.

It seems impossible to strike a balance between the development of Indian players and the quality of the league. “While reducing the number of foreigners resulted in players who you would have never thought would get gametime getting much more minutes, at the same time this season witnessed the most number of goals scored with keepers and defenders making huge mistakes,” echoes Eelco Schattorie.

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“They (AIFF) cannot keep changing the foreigner count every year. There needs to be a proper structure across all the leagues and divisions. There needs to be a clear idea so that clubs can plan and build accordingly,” adds Pradhyum. Planning of clubs remains less spoken about, but they are the most affected by the constant rule changes. Ishan Pandita was reported to have cost Jamshedpur 60 lakhs, but a foreigner of much better quality could have easily come for much less. It would be foolish of a team to spend such a large sum on a player who would only play for 303 minutes across 20 league games.

Pradhyum emphasizes that the decision regarding increasing the foreigner count cannot be a hurried or hasty one, “They need to bring together people from the game from all levels, all the stakeholders together and then make a decision.”

The right way to conclude the debate on whether the idea of increasing the number of foreigners in the playing eleven is a ridiculous or rational one, is probably that it is ironic that the FSDL is wary of expanding the league by adding new teams due to the shortage of domestic players but at the same time they are willing to reinstate the five foreigners rule in their league.

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