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Made and Minted in I-League, Behold the Young Indian Stars of ISL

Lest the fact gets lost in the glitz, goals and prize cheques of the Indian Super League, the many young and exciting players who have shone this year have all come up through non-ISL academies, nurtured by I-League clubs. The very system and supply chain is getting ignored in the top-heavy modus operandi of Indian football authorities.
Liston Colaco of Hyderabad FC

Liston Colaco, who came up via Salgaocar FC’s junior programme, has been a revelation this Indian Super League season whenever he has come on for Hyderabad FC.

Robbie Fowler is by far the biggest name in the seventh edition of the Indian Super League (ISL); footballers, coaches, support staff all included. To watch a man with 183 Premier League strikes under his belt operating from the bench at an Indian football ground is in itself a privilege. As simple as that.

But the Liverpool legend has another side to his character. One which is not as admirable as his panther-like aggression in the 18-yard area. Every time he makes an attempt to say something about SC East Bengal’s performance, he invariably puts his foot in his mouth. 

Increasingly impatient with his critics, his worst came after the 2-3 defeat against Hyderabad FC. He dismissed his own footballers as no good saying that his was “a team that is built for the I-League. The recruitment process for this team was for the I-League and then we catapulted to the ISL. Now it’s up to the players to show that they are good enough for the ISL.”

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Fowler’s statement reeks of a complete lack of understanding of the structure of the game in the country. Fowler is not alone though. It has perhaps got to do with how the narrative around India’s top league has been spun. The story behind the journey of an average Indian footballer never comes out in the glitz of the ISL. It requires no rocket science to look beyond the vested narratives though. 

A look at the account of the ongoing ISL in the last six weeks would reveal a telling picture. A cursory glance at the list of young footballers, who have made an impact (but are yet to get an India call) would reveal they are either products of I-League, or have been incorporated from different academies, the ones from All India Football Federation (AIFF) included. They have neither been prematurely catapulted, nor did their quality seem below par for the royal ISL battle.

Among the young Indian goalkeepers, 23-year-old Arshdeep Singh Saini of Odisha FC had been the most impressive so far despite his team’s obvious failure to make an impact. Without some of his brave efforts under the bar, the two points collected by Odisha so far would have been doubtful. A product of the AIFF elite academy, he spent considerable time in I-League side Minerva Punjab before graduating to ISL.

In defence, a good number of youngsters like Mohammed Rakip (Mumbai City FC), Seriton Fernandes, Saviour Gama (both FC Goa), Akash Mishra, Chinglensana Singh (both Hyderabad FC), Mehtab Singh (Mumbai City FC) and few others have made a mark. Looking at them, one can feel slightly optimistic about the future of Indian football. None of them, bar Saviour Gama, was made in the ISL. Rakip learnt his tricks in the Indian Arrows setup, Mehtab Singh travelled through Mahilpur Football Academy, East Bengal and Gokulam FC before being hailed as “prospects”.

Where was Akash Mishra before? In Indian Arrows, who still play the I-League. Chinglensana Singh did his duty at Shillong Lajong before joining Hyderabad. Seriton Fernandes had joined Sporting Clube de Goa in 2016. 

It is evident that they all have come through the grinds of the I-League and the academies before the lure of big money and the federation’s policy to reduce all other tournaments to virtual non-entities made them shift. 

It is heartening to find youngsters such as Liston Colaco, Mohammed Yasir (both Hyderabad FC), Bipin Singh (Mumbai City FC), Ninthoi Meetei NorthEast United), Mobashir Rahman (Jamshedpur FC), Princeton Robello (FC Goa), Rochharzela (NorthEast United) playing eye-catching football whenever they receive an opportunity with their teams.

Dig deep and a majority of them will all be found products of a system that has often been dismissed. From Aizawl FC, from Arrows, or Churchill Brothers. Liston Colaco, the biggest sensation among the upcoming Indians so far, learned his game at Salgaocar FC, who nearly shut shop after 50 years, citing step-motherly treatment by the AIFF.

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Fowler can’t be blamed. His understanding of Indian football is clearly superficial. And that's the narrative that has been encouraged from the top: I-League is for unskilled, second graders – it has no value or standing in Indian football. 

Not to say the ISL only runs on mercenaries. There are talented footballers like Gurmeet (NorthEast), Sandeep Mandi (Jamshedpur), or Leon Augustine (Bengaluru FC), who have come up through its internal system. But then, these numbers are still negligible. 

True, the top league of the country is only seven years old and the time is not yet ripe to expect its junior programme bear the fruits. Moreover, it is common knowledge that junior programmes of some of the ISL clubs do not inspire confidence.

There are a lot of positives for Indian football in the ISL this season, thanks to players being called prospects who have come through a well established system. That process needs to continue, says Subhash Bhowmick, former India skipper and coach, who has been watching the matches keenly. “It has given me hope,” he says. “A few of the young Indians have good futures. But they have to be nurtured and guided. But do these foreign coaches have time for that,” he wonders.

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Nurturing talent or Indian football’s future is not the priority for the coaches roped in by the clubs, Fowler included. They have to look at the season, win matches, and make a push for the title if possible. And leave. That is why the leagues and clubs which truly have deep connections in the grassroots -- the very competitions and establishments ignored by the powers calling the shots in Indian football  -- are important.  

Let us not forget that Sunil Chhetri, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Udanta Singh, Sandesh Jhingan, Pritam Kotal, Pranoy Haldar, Subhasish Bose, Aniruddha Thapa to name a few, turned themselves into India stars while playing in the I-League. Players like Balwant Singh, CK Vineeth or Jeje Lalpekhlua were part of the same lot. 

Indian football -- the top tier of the game in the country -- will never become the engine for pushing up the game to Asian and global standards on its own. That requires a well-oiled system where all competitions and all tiers of football play their part in establishing a supply chain or fresh, young talent. That supply chain has been ignored.

While Covid-19 is cited for the lack of initiative by the AIFF to restart age-group competitions for boys and girls, I-League second division, the national football championships, and even women’s football, the pandemic is just a convenient foil to hide the general apathy shown towards everything else other than ISL. If this approach continues, instances of exciting talents such as Liston, Chinglensana or Akash blossoming would become a rare sight in Indian football.

The future in football, they say, is always made in the present. And at the moment, as we enter 2021, we have the ISL, the I-League which is set to begin, and nothingness….

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