The I-League, known as one of the premier football leagues in Indian football, will be adopting a new foreigner rule applicable to all squads from the start of the 2020/21 campaign. The new 3+1 foreigner ruling means that clubs can only have four overseas players in their squad for the season, with one of them having to be a nationality within the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
The controversial ruling has gained resounding support from within Indian football, including former national team skipper Bruno Coutinho, who believes All India Football Federation’s move to limit the number of overseas players in the Indian game can only be good for the country. It’s a view that is shared by India’s national team coach, Igor Stimac, with the Croatian keen to see more homegrown talent playing on India’s biggest stage. The unlikely 2019/20 I-League winners Mohun Bagan AC had just six overseas players in their 24-man squad last term, so the new ruling may not affect them too much.
Is the ISL compatible with a low-foreigner squad ruling?
The Indian FA’s Executive Committee has confirmed the rule will be applicable to all I-League teams this coming season and it has raised question marks as to whether the same should be rolled out in the Indian Super League (ISL) in the future. The ISL has specialized in bringing overseas stars to India in the twilight of their careers. Coutinho said that when teams “play around six foreigners” it begs the question “for whom is the league?” Coutinho acknowledged the significant funds within the ISL but insisted that it “has to be used effectively” for the grassroots of the sport in India.
The ISL was formed back in October 2013 with the view of growing the sport in India and enhancing its exposure, whilst working to improve the national team. In reality, the national team has done nothing but stagnate in the last seven years. The fact that the ISL has been something of a closed shop for teams – choosing to grow the league via expansion like America’s MLS – has also meant that the ISL has become a breeding ground for ageing overseas players seeking a final payday.
A formal system for promotion and relegation is in the offing for the 2023-24 ISL season and if the 3+1 foreigner rule is implemented ahead of time there is a good chance that local talent will get to shine. Owen Coyle, Chennaiyin FC manager and former boss of English Premier League (EPL) side Burnley, believes the 3+1 foreigner rule will be a huge boost for Indian football. Coyle is of the opinion that I-League stars such as Gaurav Bora and Joby Justin will get the nod in the ISL when teams have an overseas quota, allowing “Indian players to play and the quality time they get to spend on the training grounds with good coaches”.
Chennaiyin FC have twice won the ISL outright in 2015 and 2018. They came within a whisker of winning the 2019/20 ISL title after losing in the final to ATK 3-1 in a behind-closed-doors battle. Chennaiyin’s 2020 ISL final team contained five overseas players – just one less than would be permitted by the 3+1 rule, which is why Coyle believes it can be done to build a winning team of majority Indian players. Chennaiyin had finished bottom of the ISL in 2018/19 and were by no means one of the bookmakers’ favourites to prevail in 2019/20. As part of the increased exposure, the ISL has ramped up interest in soccer betting, with many of the trusted sports betting sites listed on AsiaBet offering competitive ISL lines on desktop and mobile devices.
Cuadrat: 3+1 ruling would harm the development of Indian footballers
Bengaluru FC, who won the ISL in 2019, believe that the ruling will have the opposite effect on young Indian players and stunt their progression. Carles Cuadrat, head coach of Bengaluru FC, believes that reducing the foreign quota would place “a lot of pressure on the Indian players”. Cuadrat said that the ISL “provides a basic standard of football” and that “credit” must be given to the overseas contingent for playing their part. Cuadrat’s comments could be interpreted very negatively, suggesting that the ISL would be nothing without its foreign signings. That’s quite some call, but when you consider that only two Indian players are ranked in the top ten scorers in the history of ISL, Cuadrat may just have a point.
Nevertheless, the ISL looks unlikely to adopt the 3+1 ruling for the coming campaign. Instead, the ISL is expected to set a minimum and maximum limit on overseas players for 2020/21, with a minimum of five and a maximum of seven per squad.