The upcoming season of the I-League will see the clubs play with only four foreigners, while the Indian Super League will adopt this rule only from the following season.
Indian football’s apex body, the All India Football Federation (AIFF), had approved the 3+1 rule in May, which states that clubs can now field three foreign players and one Asian player in their starting XI. While the clubs in the ISL, Indian football’s top-flight, agreed to implement this rule only from the next season in 2021, the I-League clubs will adopt the rule from the new season.
Most I-League club owners believe this rule could work in their favour as the coronavirus pandemic has their coffers running dry and the logistical issues of bringing foreign players seem particularly vexatious.
Robert Royte, owner of 2016-17 I-League champion Aizawl FC, is calling for an all-Indian I-League season, as he feels signing foreign players will “drain the wealth of Indian football”.
“That is the best [to play without foreigners]. It will help the economic condition slowing down due to COVID-19. There is no use of giving money to foreigners. It will drain the wealth of Indian football and so we should omit foreigners this year. That is my proposal,” he said.
“We want to give more chances to local players. The purpose of playing the I-League is to promote local talent. Moreover, in a small city like Manipur where we have limited facilities, it is a blessing in disguise. Providing accommodation and food for foreigners is very difficult.” — Phulen Meitei, general secretary of TRAU FC.
“At the present juncture, it is okay to play with 3+1 rule. To make the tournament more competitive and attractive [going forward], not more than two foreigners should be there. It was my proposal for a 3+1 rule from this season. But some clubs may have already signed foreign players so that can be a challenge,” he added.
Fellow north-eastern clubs, TRAU FC and NEROCA FC also have a similar stance. “Some clubs had a reservation and wanted the rule to be adopted next season, but the 3+1 rule is something which I support. We want to give more chances to local players. The purpose of playing the I-League is to promote local talent. Moreover, in a small city like Manipur where we have limited facilities, it is a blessing in disguise. Providing accommodation and food for foreigners is very difficult,” said Phulen Meitei, general secretary of TRAU FC, which made its I-League debut last season.
He added that “it will be a big headache in getting visas for foreign players, maintaining the quarantine period, and the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs).”
NEROCA president Arunkumar Thangjam said, "The new foreigner rule is good in one way. We are really facing the difficulty of hiring expensive foreign players. If we reduce the numbers, we can reduce the budget also. And we can then give our Indian players more chances to play."
Sudeva FC, which won the corporate bid entry for the upcoming season, confirmed that it will be fielding an all-Indian team in its debut campaign.
Not all clubs in favour of 3+1 rule from this season
While a majority of clubs said they don’t mind the 3+1 rule from this season, VC Praveen, president of Gokulam Kerala, asks why there are different rules for the I-League and ISL. “Why does the AIFF have a different yardstick for ISL and I-League in terms of foreign players? They are not reducing the foreigners for ISL this season...” he opined.
Kushal Das, general secretary of the AIFF, had suggested last month that the I-League would be played in the absence of foreigners, if needed.
A senior club official, on the condition of anonymity, questioned the rationale behind the statement. “I would wonder how the foreigners could come for the ISL but not the I-League. I don’t understand how that would happen. We have agreed to the 3+1 rule and I hope we can get the foreign players to India. The situation doesn’t just depend on just India, but depends on where the players are coming from as well,” the official said.
Status of foreign signings
Real Kashmir, which made its I-League debut in 2018, is the only club to have completed its foreign signings. “We have already done all the groundwork and zeroed in on our foreign signings. We have 95 percent finalised the squad. There are a lot of uncertainties, but that is a risk we have to take. These are the kind of risks we have taken from the beginning,” Real Kashmir owner Sandeep Chattoo said. It is the first club from the valley to play in the League.
Chennai City FC is at the other end of the spectrum. The club had terminated contracts of all its foreign players when the League was suspended in March and is currently in no rush to sign replacements.
"We can field an all Indian team too. (Signing foreign players) is something we want to wait on and take a call on later. We have to take into account the logistical concerns too," said club owner Rohit Ramesh.
“We will wait till the end of September and then only take a call, we aren’t in a rush to sign anyone. If we do sign a foreign player and then if he is unable to travel to India, then it’s a huge loss for us. We will hold on till the last minute to sign foreigners,” he added.
No foreigners, lower level of competition?
Shillong Lajong had fielded an all-Indian squad in the 2018-19 season of the I-League. The team had the distinction of having the youngest squad in the League, but could manage only three wins in 20 games and was relegated to the I-League 2nd division.
Foreign players have been an integral part of I-League teams. While Indian players have often excelled in defensive positions, they have struggled to re-create the magic in front of goal. No Indian striker has topped the I-League’s goal-scoring charts over the last five seasons. The most goals scored by an Indian was Jobby Justin’s nine for East Bengal in the 2018-19 season. In stark contrast, Churchill Brothers’ Willis Plaza and Chennai City FC’s Pedro Manzi had scored 21 goals each the same season. In fact, there wasn’t a single Indian striker in the top-10 goal-scorers list last season.
Real Kashmir’s Chattoo feels the 3+1 rule would give Indian players more game time, but it would also see a dip in the quality of play in the League.
AIFF puts the onus on clubs
I-League CEO Sunando Dhar has said that it is the club’s responsibility to arrange for foreign players to come to India.
“It is the responsibility of the teams to get in touch with players and bring them over. The clubs will have to follow the Indian government’s directive regarding foreigners coming to India and the prescribed quarantine period they have to undergo before they start moving around. The rules for foreigners coming to play in India will be the same for the I-League and ISL,” he said.
Addressing the fact that most I-League clubs are likely to adopt an all-Indian teams this season, he said, “That’s a call totally taken by the clubs. We have decided, after consulting clubs, that the number of foreigners would be reduced for I-League clubs in accordance with the AFC rules. If someone wants to play without or lesser foreigners, it is totally their decision.”
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