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Do I-League players deserve a chance in the Indian football team?

Published at :March 28, 2024 at 6:09 PM
Modified at :March 29, 2024 at 1:53 PM
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Rutvij Joshi

The player who scored the winner for Afghanistan in Guwahati played for Churchill Brothers in the I-League until December.

The Indian football team has hit rock bottom after having suffered a shocking loss against a lower ranked and underpowered Afghanistan in the second round of the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers. After such a debacle, the fans, well wishers, and critics have started asking questions: why are I-League players not called up?

Igor Stimac has had 51 games under his tutelage but never once did the Croatian pick any I-League players. To make matters worse for Stimac and rub the salt on the wounds, Sharif Mukhammad, the Churchill Brothers midfielder who played very recently in the I-League, scored the winner against an all-ISL Indian side. The question that arises now is whether the players playing in I-League do not have the skill set required to play for the Indian football team?

Let us bring the myth down with some facts and figures and see whether or not any top national team calls up player plying their trade in the lower divisions

Does a top national team call up players from the lower division?

South Korea reached the semi-finals of the recently concluded AFC Asian Cup. They have some of the best players in Asia and some of them play in some of the top clubs in Europe. Yet, Jurgen Klinsmann, the then head coach called up left-back Lee Ki-Je who was playing for a second division Korean League side Suwon Samsung Bluewings then. The K1 League has 12 teams yet Klinsmann dared to call up a player from the second division. This is not the only example.

Gareth Southgate, the England boss too called up Sam Johnstone for the Three Lions side in 2022 when he was contracted with West Brom who were playing in the Championship. These examples gives us a clear indication that if there are no resources in the top division, coaches call up players from the second tier.

Goal-scoring an issue for Indian football team

The Indian football team failed to score a single goal in their three group stage games in the AFC Asian Cup earlier this year. The issue wasn’t solved in the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers games in March as India scored only one goal (that too via penalty) against a weakened Afghan side.

It is true that Indian players are often overlooked for the No.9 position by the ISL clubs and prefer an overseas striker up front. However, the same is not the case in the I-League. Mohammedan Sporting’s David Lalhlansanga has scored 11 goals in 22 games in the I-League and the Durand Cup combined.  

Lalrinzuala Lalbiaknia as well, has 11 goals in 16 games in the I-League this season. Unfortunately, none of these players were even called up for the preliminary squad or the national team camps just to see whether they fit in the bill.

Does any other country call up players from the I-League?

Is India’s choice of picking players out of compulsion or has any other player playing in I-League called up by their national team? The answer is yes. Zohib Islam Amiri plied his trade in I-League for close to a decade and Afghanistan did call him up for the national team games. Same goes for his countryman, Sharif Mukhammad as stated earlier.

Moreover, Komron Turusunov was recently called up by Tajikistan in the AFC Asian Cup where the country went on to play in the quarter-finals overcoming all odds.

The conclusion the Indian football team and Igor Stimac should draw is that India has a decent league structure and a decent pool of players. If there is intention and eye of spotting and scouting talent, Indian football may well move forward together.

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