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Will We See More Foreign Players in Indian Football Clubs in the Near Future?

With the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) deliberating removal of the ceiling on the number of foreign players that a club could register for its continental championships, the repercussions could reach Indian soil as well. More players from abroad in the playing XI of ISL and I-League clubs could spell disaster for Indian football, feel former players.
Foreign players in ATK Mohun Bagan playing XI

ATK Mohun Bagan’s Antonio Habas, one of the more successful coaches in the ISL, and whose side’s driving forces are foreign players (in pic), has in the past spoken about letting more players from abroad in the club roster.

Many years ago, when having a son of the soil as the head coach of India’s national football team wasn’t out of fashion yet, Syed Nayeemuddin enjoyed a fairly long stint at the helm.

The Arjuna and Dronacharya award winner had his share of ups and downs as the national coach, but his biggest complaint was always the presence of foreigners in club football. He clearly despised the increasing importance of foreign footballers and believed it would do more harm to Indian soccer than good.

Nayeemuddin wasn’t taken too seriously then. But as the years passed by, his call for reduction of foreigners in Indian football got bigger as more and more coaches came up with similar arguments.

So much so, the present national coach, Croatian Igor Stimac, too spoke in the same vein. Under pressure for his team’s lack of success at the international level, Stimac said last year: “My suggestion for the top tier [Indian Super League - ISL ] was to follow the AFC rule 3+1. That’s the basic rule for the number of foreign players. 

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“It’s not strange that the most successful Asian teams are following that rule. That’s why they are successful, that’s why they have the option for the national team to have strikers, to have midfielders and centre-backs,” said the Indian football team coach.      

As if on cue, in March 2020, The All India Football Federation’s (AIFF’s) technical committee, headed by former international Shyam Thapa, recommended the ISL and the I-League should follow the AFC guidelines and adhere to the 3+1 foreigners’ rule from the 2021-22 season. 

The I-League did accept the recommendation with immediate effect. The ISL 2021-22 season, starting later this month, will employ the 3+1 rule – four foreigners in the starting eleven with one of them from an Asian Football Confederation (AFC) affiliated nation. But given the latest development happening at the continental level, the rule could prove to be a purely temporary one. 

In the AFC competition committee meeting recently, the members discussed making some fresh changes in the current 3+1 rule.

The media release from the AFC after the Bahrain meeting said: “The Committee also discussed several options regarding the current Foreign Player Quota for the AFC Champions League and the AFC Cup. 

“While the existing 3+1 quota will continue to apply for the 2022 seasons, the Committee agreed to remove the 3+1 ceiling on the number of Foreign Players allowed for the Preliminary Registration, paving the way for any number of Foreign Players to be registered based on the domestic registration rules.

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“Further, the maximum number of players in the Preliminary Registration was increased from 30 to 35.

“All the decisions will need to be ratified by the AFC Executive Committee to take effect.”

For a club playing in the Asian Champions League (ACL) or the AFC Cup, the options now are much bigger. Though only four will be allowed to be registered in the line-up for 21 players on match day, there will be no restriction on the number of foreign recruits among other players.

Well, the rule is applicable to ACL and AFC Cup only, but the Indian clubs also participate in these tournaments and they have the right to take advantage of the new rule to stay in the hunt.

If the sources are to be believed, the matter may not end here only. From 2023, more foreigners could be allowed in the starting eleven for the ACL and AFC Cup – to have a 5+2 rule won’t come as a surprise. Many in the continental body believe a ceiling on foreign recruits is no longer needed in top level club football; the rule is somewhat backdated and used only in Asia and Oceania.

The AFC never forces its rules down the throats of member nations – in this case also they are expected to allow each country to frame their own regulations for domestic tournaments. But then, the relaxation of foreign players in AFC tournaments could force authorities in India to have a fresh look at the 3+1 rule. 

ISL had always been eager to have more foreign players in the competition to make the on-field activities more interesting and spectator-friendly. It began with six in the playing eleven and has now gradually come down to 3+1 though clubs are still allowed to register six foreigners. And it is not about the ISL only; the I-League clubs would also demand the foreigners’ registration rule should be in line with the AFC decision. It could be hard for the AIFF to stonewall the pressure.

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Shyam Thapa, the chairman of the technical committee, said: “I am not sure what exactly the proposed AFC rule on foreigners would be. But to allow a bigger number of foreigners may not be good from the Indian point of view. It may further reduce the chances of Indian footballers. I am sure the federation officials will discuss the matter before taking a decision.”

Former India captain IM Vijayan is amused at the prospect of having seven foreigners in the starting eleven. “That would be a boon for club football because every club wants to win by hook or crook,” he laughed. “But it could spell doom for the national team. To find Indian players will be an uphill task. I am sure the AIFF will never allow it,” he added.  

The problem is that football in India currently revolves more around clubs and franchises. There are pressure groups, who often call the shots at the expense of the national team. The rule brought in last year to reduce the number of foreigners didn’t go down well in some quarters.

ATK Mohun Bagan’s Antonio Habas, one of the more successful coaches in the ISL, was quoted as saying: “I believe that the number of foreign players must be maintained, at least 3-4 more seasons... keeping the current format. 

“This will increase the level of the players and Indian football. We have to work this time at clubs’ academies so there’s more Indian players with high performance.” 

Habas’ words openly defied the recommendation of the AIFF technical committee; he surely enjoyed the backing from the right places since no one came forward to ask him to refrain from commenting on policy matters.  

Habas shouldn’t be blamed; policies and Indian football do not always go hand in hand.

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