The new ruling of using six foreigners stipulated by AFC has put fans in different schools of thought.

The ISL has now become the cornerstone of Indian football. The league is now rich with quality and the last few seasons have produced some entertaining contests, great goals, and wonderful football to watch.

It is all down to the talent that has been on show, be it Indian or foreign. Over the years, the level of this talent has been increasing manifold. The most successful teams in the ISL attribute their success to maintaining the right team balance. There is also the case of such clubs being able to hold onto talent, which has not been the case among many clubs in the ISL.

But, the stipulation about the number of foreigners that can be played in a team is often a subject of contention. The ISL currently mandates a four foreigners rule in the starting XI. However, the AFC Executive Committee have ruled that clubs can register six foreigners (5+1 quota) in its playing XI for all continental competitions from the 2023-24 season. The recent mandate by the AFC have also lifted the cap on signing foreign players in the domestic leagues as per league registration rules.

Despite the ruling by the continental body, Indian football authorities for now have decided to stick with the 3+1 rule. Could it be a step in the right direction? We try to figure out the answers to these questions.

How Indians performed in the 2021/22 season?

Liston Colaco
Colaco was among the best domestic players in ISL 2021-22 (Courtesy: ISL Media)

The 2021/22 season was the first season where the ISL clubs played with the four foreigners rule. The ruling evidently led to an increase in the contribution of Indian players toward their team’s cause.

Indian players scored 33.8% of the goals in the recently-concluded season. The tally is the second-highest in ISL history behind the 35% in the 2018-19 season. The average age of the Indian scorers was 24.48 years, the youngest in any season in the ISL. The contribution of Indian players increased not only in terms of goals but also in assists. Indian players contributed 48.63% of the total assists in the ISL this season. The tally is the highest by Indian players in any season in the ISL.

Why keeping the 3+1 rule could be a good move?

The above numbers indicate an obvious increase in the output of Indian players in the ISL. Bengaluru FC coach Marco Pezziaouli also welcomed the decision by the FSDL to stick with the four foreigners rule. The addition of an extra Indian player on the pitch has increased the exposure and experience of Indian players.

For the first time in the history of the ISL, the league saw more Indian players score goals than foreigners. 55 different foreigners scored in the ISL to 61 different Indians. That is a 56% increase from the number of unique Indian scorers in the 2020-21 season.

Hormipam Ruivah
Ruivah is one example of a player who made it to the playing XI due to 4+1 foreigners rule (Courtesy: ISL Media)

Therefore, having the extra Indian player opens more roles for Indians all across the park. The recent call-ups of Naorem Roshan Singh, Danish Farooq, and Ruivah Hormipam indicate the wealth of talent that Indians can harness across different positions. An area where the national team dearly requires quality is in attack. The likes of Liston Colaco, Aniket Jadhav, Rohit Danu, Manvir Singh, Rahim Ali, and VP Suhair give confidence and hope for the future, that they can take on the mantle of leading India’s attack.

Going ahead, the average ages of Indian players will also decrease, leading to an increased pool of young, hungry Indian players who could shine for club and country. The need for an extra Indian player will improve scouting and unearth hidden gems from the rubble. Hira Mondal is a great example of this, having excelled in the 2021-22 season in a lackluster SC East Bengal side.

Why keeping the 3+1 could be a bad move?

The 3+1 ruling is sure to add to the domestic talent that will rise. But, it could also lead to a case where the league could decrease in quality.

The 2021-22 season saw the most goals scored in a single ISL season. While this shows that the attacking quality has definitely increased, the same can’t be said about the defence. The same wasn’t the case with an extra foreigner, where you would usually have foreign centre-back duos who performed really well.

Javier Siverio
Can the ISL attract young players like Siverio with the 3+1 foreigners rule? (Courtesy: ISL Media)

The ISL currently manages to attract young players like Javier Siverio and more. But, the continuation of the decrease in defensive quality might not interest foreign recruits, especially defensive and midfield imports. This could lead to a decrease in the quality and talent within the league if the four foreigners rule persists.

The shelf-life of an ISL coach is also short. A key reason for the same is the haywire recruitment of foreign players by ISL clubs. The 3+1 rule could be restrictive in this case. Currently, any ISL club can sign only six foreign players to their squad. Possessing an option to sign more foreigners is sure to add to the squad depth. This will be especially useful for clubs that qualify for AFC competitions, as it will help the players settle in by then.

Which way should AIFF and FSDL go?

The decision by the AFC has put the AIFF and FSDL in a tight spot. There is definitely an upside to continuing with the 3+1 foreigners’ rule, more Indian talent, and more resources for the national team. But, they also have to look after the quality of the league.

At the start of the 2021-22 season, former ATK Mohun Bagan coach and three-time ISL winner Antonio Lopez Habas questioned the motive behind the move. When asked about the ruling, he replied, “Now, the rules are to play four foreign players and we have to adapt to that situation.

We have six foreign players and there is a high possibility that all are capable of playing. I have one question: Is it better to reduce one foreign player? Because the player who comes here has to be of high quality. It is not possible that a (foreign) player with no quality can play in ISL.”

Habas added, “The ISL is a good advertisement for Indian football and every season there have been more Indians on the pitch, but if football’s standard has to improve, work should start in the academies.”

The veteran coach’s statement symbolizes an interesting juncture in how the authorities are going to work around the new rules by the AFC. Do they stick with the same? Or do they give clubs the freedom to sign more foreigners? How will the latter affect clubs playing in AFC competitions and others in general? What would be the quality of such foreigners based on the difference in spending power of ISL clubs? Watch this space.

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