Why Indian leagues should field fewer foreign players

The existing foreign player quota will not help the development of Indian football…

Indian football has, for so long, admired foreign footballers. The clubs, the supporters and even the neutrals adore them, pay them high salaries and consider them as part of the process of developing Indian talent. But after 13 years of I-League and six years of Indian Super League (ISL) – the two main football leagues in the country, the question that should be asked is whether India requires – not wants – so many foreign players playing in its leagues. 

The discussion of the number of foreigner players allowed in Indian leagues is long-standing. As a football team, while World Cup dreams seem far-fetched at the moment, the primary objective should be to compete alongside the best in Asia. 

Under Stephen Constantine, India cracked the top-100 code but it is only the beginning of the struggle to get to the top of the rankings in Asia. The English coach stepped down after India’s exit from the AFC Asian Cup and within months, former Croatia national team manager Igor Stimac was appointed. 

It soon became evident that the squad has the potential to play better football and adapt to a new philosophy quickly. However, the Blue Tigers lack depth in several areas of the field and it remains a cause for concern for the Croatian.

Quality over quantity

India requires better facilities and training from the grassroots and that is not a secret. But amidst the rallying call for improvement at the grassroots, there is another issue that has gone relatively unnoticed. It’s the foreign involvement in Indian football. 

Be it for the purpose of marketing or to attract crowds, India has accommodated a lot of foreign players who are either past their prime or sub-par in terms of quality. The countries which have done well in Asia have regulated their foreign quota well and it’s time for India to follow suit. 

The major argument in favour of including foreign players has been about how they can help the local talents improve. But that’s not up to them. By having more than three foreign players in a starting lineup, all clubs are doing is restricting the development of Indian players by hampering first-team minutes. Also, very few foreign players currently playing in India are either in their prime or still possess enough quality to deserve high salaries. 

Follow Asian trend?

If you take a look at the Asian teams above India in the FIFA Rankings (as of March 2020), very few countries like Japan (first in Asia) have relaxed guidelines in terms of foreign footballers. In fact, a J-League club can field a starting lineup full of foreign players – but does that really matter to a country which has already put themselves on the world football map? 16 out of the 22 players who were called up for Japan’s last World Cup qualifier played for foreign clubs including those in top European leagues. 

Australia’s (fourth in Asia) case is similar. A-League allows five foreigners per club but the country has over 50 players playing abroad, which gives them leeway. The last exception should be Arab countries like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia who are lavish with their expenditure as they can afford it. India can’t spend like them.

Moreover, the players Saudi Arabian league has brought in include Giovinco (Juventus – Toronto – Al Hilal), Bafetimbi Gomis (former Premier League and Ligue 1), Wilfried Bony (former Swansea City ), Bruno Uvini ( former Napoli ) etc on multi-million dollar salaries. The average salary of foreigners is reportedly around $2M per year. When ISL officially published salary details in 2018, the league’s highest-paid player was Manuel Lanzarote, to whom ATK paid $480,000. 

Most other leagues in Asia have restricted the number of foreign players who can take the field (Clubs may be allowed to sign players, they simply cannot play them together). They also have a separate quota for AFC member nations, as per AFC norms, and a few of them have allocated quota for their associate nation, eg., players from the ASEAN region in Thailand, Palestinians in Lebanon, players of Chinese descent from Hong Kong, Taiwan etc in China.

Right changes at the right time

It is all about making changes at the right time and as it stands, a reduced foreign quota is what India needs. As the Asian rankings suggest, how leagues manage their foreign players has a notable impact on the improvement of the national team. 

Most of the Indian clubs have a foreign striker leading the line. The prime midfield creator is also likely to be a foreigner – a Spaniard or a Brazilian, going by recent trend. Is it a surprise that a lot of Indian national team hopefuls warmed the bench for most of the campaign last season?

This is all the more important when you consider the number of local players involved in Indian football right now. At least nine countries ranked above India in Asia has more than 700 local players playing in various professional leagues within a hierarchical setup. Indian players have to choose from a total of 21 clubs from ISL and I-League (which allows more than five foreign players per club) and an I-League 2nd division that runs for a few months.

76th-ranked China, who has emerged as one of the biggest spenders in the world in the last few years, allows only four foreign players on the field following a change of policy in 2018. The clubs are also required to register a 31-member squad. China has been running a considerable amount of projects to train local coaches and improve grassroots-level development. 

What Indian clubs can do is to focus on finding 3-4 top foreign talents and use their services to good effect to achieve success. Clubs like FC Goa have proved that they can do well without maximising their foreign quota. So once the whole league comes to terms with a new foreign policy, it will only help Indian players.

Instead of signing seven foreign players on short-term contracts and paying exorbitant fees, why should you not sign a Hugo Boumous (talented), a Sergio Castel (young)/Roy Krishna (world-class), a Juanan (reliable) and shut the door? So India, 3+1 is the way forward.