I-League: Under-22 rule suspended for three rounds

The decision to suspend the Under-22 rule has been taken in view of the South Asian Games Under-23 football tournament, slated to kick-off on February 6.

Action from an I-League match between Bengaluru FC and Mumbai FC (yellow) at the Cooperage in Mumbai. The sudden suspension of the Under-22 rule is not only bizarre but also in contrast to the strict policies of the AIFF and the I-League.   -  Prashant Nakwe

In a decision that is bound to take the football lovers in the country by surprise, I-League has announced that it will suspend the Under-22 rule – which states that a team should field at least one player under the age of 22 in its starting line-up – for the next three rounds.

The decision has been taken in view of the South Asian Games Under-23 football tournament, slated to kick-off on February 6.

The Under-22 rule was introduced last season to encourage the I-League teams to promote young Indian football players. The sudden suspension of the rule is in contrast to the strict policies of the AIFF and the I-League.

“The Under-22 rule has been suspended for the next three rounds of the I-League matches because of the South Asian Games, which is an Under-23 tournament. There are some clubs that are losing four-five players, while others are losing just one or two. We didn’t want to give any team an undue advantage. The rule will resume from February 16,” said the I-League CEO, Sundanda Dhar.

When only defending champion Mohun Bagan is losing more than five players – of whom Abhishek Das and Jeje Lalpekhlua are above 22 and hence not applicable for the league rule – to the South Asian Games, the need to temporarily suspend the rule is bizarre. Are the I-League teams running short of quality young talent?

Gautam Roy, a representative of East Bengal, said the decision was understandable considering the fact that many teams were losing their key players. “It is mandatory for a team to register a minimum of five Under-22 players in their 30-man squad. But if we lose the majority of these players to a tournament, then either we should be allowed to replace them with other young players or the Under-22 rule has to be suspended.”

Larsing Ming, the AIFF vice-president and co-owner of Shillong Lajong, offered a different explanation for what is happening to India’s top division football. “Most teams are struggling to field Under-22 players. They field the players in the starting 11 and then take them off by half-time.

“Today there is a surplus of football players in the country. There are just nine teams in the I-League and it lasts only five months. Each team has to field eight players in the starting line-up, so that makes it 72 players. Let’s add another 40 as substitutes. So in a big country such as India, only around 120 players are getting a contract to play.

“Similarly in the ISL, only six Indian players are required in the starting line-up. That’s 48 players plus another 50. And they are most likely the same players who played in the I-League.

“There are a lot of good quality players up for grabs and the teams tend to offer contract to players between 24 and 28 because that is when a player peaks. This means the younger U-23 players struggle to find a spot in a top division team,” said Larsing.

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