Indian Football: An ISL without foreign players. Does it help or harm Indian football?
Are the foreigners affecting Indian football for the good or worse? Are they truly held responsible or is it the dependence on them which is taking the nation's football to a decline?
Ever since the inauguration of the Indian Super League in 2014, the Indian football audiences have seen many foreign players, some with immense fame and some with game-changing capabilities. It can be easily stated that Indian football in 2021 is completely dependent on the foreign contingents of the respective teams and this dependence has some pros and cons.
Does it help the country's football or cause harm?
First, let's discuss how these foreigners have been helping or have helped Indian football. When the ISL started in 2014, audiences were amazed to see the likes of Marco Materazzi, Luis Garcia, David James, Alessandro Del Piero, Robert Pires and Iain Hume play in front of their eyes. It was glamourous back then for sure, but the Indian players who shared the dressing rooms with such great individuals surely learned a lot from them. The individual quality of the Indian players has improved since then. Secondly, the introduction of reputed players to the Indian Super League helped the league and Indian football to get exposure in many countries. An example that could be given is, Robbie Fowler's appointment as SC East Bengal's head coach last year. Yes, it is true that he didn't join as a footballer, but the exposure which the club and the league gained throughout the world from this signing was mind-boggling. Such cases happened in the first few years of the Indian Super League where international figures like Luis Garcia, Marco Materazzi, Diego Forlan, and Florent Malouda turned out to be decisive in their club's success. But later on, the focus on fame started declining, and the focus on quality and efficiency has increased. In the last two or three seasons, we have seen foreigners sailing in from countries from where footballers weren't previously scouted. In the last two decades, the foreigners who came to India were mostly from Nigeria, Brazil, Ghana, and Spain, but as we enter the eighth edition of the Indian Super League, we find foreigners from Lithuania, the Republic of the Congo, Croatia, Serbia, etc. signing for the clubs. Thus, the inclusion of these foreigners may be stated as an improvement in the scouting methods performed by the teams to maximise the potential for the team, and the reduce the cost of signing star players or marquee players. Another way in which foreigners have helped the country's football is by generating revenue, though as the previous point, this happened mostly in the initial years of the league. Nowadays, too, we can see people tuning into their television sets or traveling to the stadiums to witness the likes of Rafael Crivellaro or Roy Krishna playing, but people love to adore more foreigners just because of the impact they have on the team. The dependency on foreigners to change games, to deliver results and help Indian footballers grow can be the three primary responsibilities foreign players have.
Now let's talk about how these foreign players have harmed Indian football. But before starting, let's get this clear that the foreigners don't harm Indian football, rather the way in which clubs in the Indian Super League rely and depend on them does. Two-minute surfing of the internet will provide with the information that Sunil Chhetri is the only Indian footballer to win the Golden Ball in the last seven seasons and there are no Indian footballers who have won the Golden Boot. The national team still lacks a replacement for Sunil Chhetri who will probably retire from the national team in a few years. No Indian club except Bengaluru FC relies on a particular Indian footballer or some of them. Is this some kind of inferiority that the clubs have? Is it not their fault that they haven't been able to portray someone like Chhetri who can be their savior in the dying moments? Why are foreigners always held responsible to be game-changers for the teams?
Secondly, the number of foreigners fielded by each team also causes damage to the nation's football. Previously it was five (on the pitch) which meant just six Indians could start and from the upcoming season, it will be four on the pitch and six overall. Currently, no club features an overseas goalkeeper. They usually try to form the skeleton of the team with the foreigners by signing center-backs, central midfielders (CAM and CDM), attacking midfielders and center-forwards, and then work on the flesh, that is the Indian contingent which mainly comprises of the goalkeeper, side-backs, wingers/wing-forwards. One thing to be kept in mind is that there are exceptions to this as well. Bringing in Indian footballers in important positions like central defensive midfielder or attacking midfielder or center-forward will help the Indian national team in the future.
In the case of Steven Mendoza, who was an integral part of winning the Indian Super League for Chennaiyin FC in the second season. He kickstarted his career with the ISL in many ways, and then went on to represent the Columbian National team. Young foreigners like Sergio Castell, or Chencho Gyltshen also get a chance to explore their football career with a second chance. Sergio got a chance to get more game time with Jamshedpur while Chencho helps Bhutan football expand from their country. It is the case with so many players, and ISL also helps foreign players in many ways.
The other option that can be in mind that when Indian Super League has relegation and promotion and combines smoothly with the I-League. The teams in the I-League or the lower leagues should field only foreign players, or reduce the foreign player to a maximum of two. A process like this might help the team grow, help Indian players take responsibility and adapt, and also help the foreign players to impact the Indian player with their experiences and learning curves.
It is a complementary relationship, and the foreigners will play an integral part in the growth of Indian football until India becomes a power-house in Asian football to say the least.
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