Last month the AIFF and FSDL decided that the 3+1 rule for foreigners will be implemented in the ISL from the 2021-22 season onward and the move has received a mixed response so far. According to the rule change, ISL teams will be able to field only four foreign players in the starting eleven out of which one of them has to be of Asian origin as opposed to the existing five allowed until the 2020-21 season.
This rule is applicable to all AFC tournaments and thus, has been adapted by the ISL as well. Proponents of the change argue that this will lead to more playing time for local players while critics state that foreigners improve the quality of the league considerably and the move has come too soon.
Among those who favour the move are national team coach Igor Stimac, who claims that more game time is a prerequisite for the development of Indian players and points to players like Anirudh Thapa, Jeakson Singh, and Lallianzuala Chhangte who were amongst the best players in the league last season. Former India manager Stephen Constantine too argues that the poor attitude of some foreign players had a negative impact on the domestic players who would also often be asked to play out of position to accommodate the foreigners.
There has been a mixed response from the clubs with Bengaluru FC CEO Mandar Tamhane and Kerala Blasters assistant coach Ishfaq Ahmed praising the change of rules. FC Goa midfielder Edu Bedia and ATK coach Antonio Habas believe that foreigners have a lot to give to the league and that it is far too early for the league to make this decision.
Bengaluru FC coach Carles Cuadrat perhaps articulated the shortcomings of the move best, saying that there will be a lot of added pressure on the Indian players which may hamper their growth anyway. He claimed that due credit is not being given to foreign players when it comes to raising the standard of football. He also pointed out that the narrative that this move will be beneficial for the national team is false as Stimac should only concern himself with the best players and this move aims at the quantity rather than the quality.
While the rule change has its benefits, there are some rather pressing issues that have not been accounted for by the authorities. FC Goa, the league stage winners last season, had a core of largely local players supplemented by foreign players such as Coro and Hugo Boumous. Indian players including Brandon Fernandes and Jakichand Singh flourished thanks to the added quality of the foreign players. Their success was thanks to their extensive grassroots program which should arguably be the focus of the league. Restricting foreign players seems to be a superficial decision, one which just gives the impression of being useful without any substance behind it.
As Cuadrat correctly pointed out, this rule does not directly benefit the national team as it simply increases the number of Indian players who will now compete at a lower standard of football. Unlike what Stimac believes, the improvement in domestic players has not come despite the foreigners but instead thanks to them. His concern over Indian players is well-intended but perhaps misplaced.
To go one step further, the question arises why should the majority of the decisions of the AIFF be directed at the national team. Yes, undoubtedly the national team is important but it seems that the club system has to constantly adjust according to its whims and fancies. A robust club pyramid with a strong grassroots base will inadvertently lead to improved performance of the nation team.
AIFF’s obsession to succeed at the country level without giving due importance to grassroots football is self-serving and self defeating. They can directly claim credit for India’s performances but they cannot do the same for clubs. What this decision fails to recognise is that you cannot improve one without the other.
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