ISL 2021: Seven years of Chhetri, where are the other Indian strikers?

ISL 2021: For the fourth year running, Chhetri was the top Indian goal-scorer. You have to go down all the way to 14th spot to find the next Indian on the list.

Sunil Chhetri netted eight goals in 20 games for Bengaluru FC this season and finished as the ISL’s seventh-highest scorer.   -  Sportzpics / ISL

Seven long years have passed, as have seven seasons of the Indian Super League (ISL). Foreign investments have poured in, even as the league was elevated to the country’s top football division. Yet a nagging question remains: Where are the home-grown Indian strikers?

For the fourth year running, Bengaluru FC captain Sunil Chhetri, now 36, was the top Indian goal-scorer. Chhetri netted eight goals in 20 games this season — a campaign that was poor considering Bengaluru FC’s standards — and finished as the seventh-highest scorer. You have to go down all the way to 14th spot to find the next Indian on the list, Bipin Singh, who scored the championship-winning goal for Mumbai City FC and was also the only player to score a hat-trick this season. And then comes Manvir Singh, who also scored six goals.

Pundits and fans have often pondered the question: Who next after Chhetri? It is a question that has irked national team coach Igor Stimac, who once said: “Honestly, the question irritates me. We have Sunil in the team — that happens once in every decade or two. But still, everyone keeps asking, ‘When is he leaving or what next once he leaves?’ Let him enjoy his game. Why are we putting pressure on him?”

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Stimac added: “He has enough years left in him. He is enjoying his game. He is still scoring goals. As for what we will do once he leaves, we need to replace him as a team, as a group. It’s not about an individual player. It has to be a team effort because players like him are very difficult to replace. We cannot see anyone now, or in five years, replacing him. It has to be a team effort.”

The only Indian who was solely used as a striker this season was the new kid on the block, Ishan Pandita. The 22-year-old, who came off the bench 11 times for FC Goa, was thrown into the deep end by Juan Ferrando and he delivered with four goals from 131 minutes of football.   -  Sportzpics / ISL

How does one not pose this question though, considering the dearth of Indian strikers breaking through the ranks in almost half a decade? Even on the national front, Chhetri has scored over 30 percent of the Blue Tigers’ goals since 2014. And while Chhetri is showing no signs of slowing down and remains supremely fit, the reality that he isn’t getting any younger can’t be overlooked.

In the seven editions of the ISL, only nine Indians have featured in the list of top-10 strikers at the end of a season. And among them, only two make it to the top-10 overall goalscorers in the ISL — Chhetri and Jeje Lalpekhlua. The next two in line are Lallianzuala Chhangte and C. K. Vineeth, placed 13th and 20th, respectively.

To put these numbers into perspective, Jeje finds himself on the list despite managing only two goals in three seasons. He was ruled out for the entirety of the 2019-20 season. Lallianzuala Chhangte has 19 goals in 78 games, but endured a terrible campaign this time around as he fluffed innumerable chances to end with four goals. Vineeth only played two games this season and has four goals in three seasons. Yet, they remain the leading Indian goal-scorers in the top flight. A few others have come along the way, such as Balwant Singh and Robin Singh, but none have stood the test of time. This is perhaps because most managers rather opt for a proven foreign striker than an Indian in the same role.

Former Bengaluru FC coach Carles Cuadrat had raised this issue last season, saying he would be a worried man if he were Stimac. “I gave them a lot of opportunities, but the results are not there. If I am in the place of Stimac, I will be worried,” he had said while referring to the duo of Udanta Singh and Ashique Kuruniyan, who had failed to perform that season despite multiple opportunities.

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When asked if teams would shy away from fielding an India-led forward line, the Spaniard said the trend was already underway. “Most of the teams are trying to get a spine made of foreigners — from defenders to midfielders to No. 9,” he said.

The concept has stuck on as the likes of Bipin and Hyderabad FC’s Halicharan Narzary, who were in the thick of goals, did not play as strikers. They were deployed as wingers or wide attackers, with the intent of feeding the ball to the foreign striker down the middle. Even Manvir, a traditional forward and someone who can play as a No. 9, was positioned on the right flank at Antonio Habas’ ATK Mohun Bagan. The 25-year-old, who even played as a wing-back on occasion, returned with a career-best six goals.

The only Indian who was solely used as a striker this season was the new kid on the block, Ishan Pandita. The 22-year-old, who came off the bench 11 times for FC Goa, was thrown into the deep end by Juan Ferrando and delivered with four goals from 131 minutes of football.

Solutions: Reserve-squad matches, a longer second division

Former Pune City technical director and Bengaluru FC assistant coach Pradhyum Reddy feels Indian strikers are moulded into wingers when they join ISL clubs. “Players end up being shunted out of positions to make way for what is, on paper, the strongest line-up as per the coach. All the Indian No. 10s become wingers. You don’t see an Indian (Federico) Gallego or see an Indian playing that creative role because there’s a Brazilian or a Spaniard who can do it,” he says.

“You can’t blame the coaches to an extent — they get paid to win. If an Indian striker has 10 chances and scored one goal and if an Igor Angulo scores seven goals from 10 chances, you are more likely to put Angulo there. The same applies to the I-League as well — 90 percent of the all-time top-scorers are foreigners. If you want to rectify this, it has to start from the youth levels. The second-division teams struggle to score goals because of a lack of quality Indians strikers, and even they pick foreigners. I would suggest the second division becomes an all-Indian league; then you are bound to develop Indian strikers,” he adds.

Mumbai City’s Bipin Singh was the only player to score a hat-trick this season.   -  Sportzpics / ISL

 

Pradhyum believes that Indian football needs a systematic shake-up to produce more strikers. “China has a good system in place — the reserves play the next day. All the reserve players play and teams can use up to three players over the age of 23 who did not participate in the previous day’s game. Typically, that’s where young strikers get an opportunity to impress the coaches and rub shoulders with senior pros. If we adopt that system, that could be one way to bridge the gap.”

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Another option would be to have a longer second division in India. “The leagues at the lower end are very short. If it is a 10-month-long season and is only for Indian players, then you can see changes. It won’t happen overnight, but maybe in five to six years we will start seeing some Indian strikers,” he says.

As Bob Dylan wrote, “The answer is blowin’ in the wind.” But we wonder if anyone is listening.