Indian players: Do ISL clubs use them just to make up the numbers?
If Indian football is to move forward, talented youngsters and established Indian stars must be entrusted with prominent responsibilities on the pitch…
When FC Goa lined up against NorthEast United on Thursday 11th November, there was a new feeling of excitement and shock throughout the stadium. In the short history of the Indian Super League, never has a team fielded 9 homegrown starters before this game. While FC Goa coach Zico has always stated his willingness and dedication towards developing Indian players, it needs to happen more often to actually benefit Indian football.
While the ISL has been devised on the lines of the Indian Premier League which has actually taken Indian cricket forward, it is important that the same impact is brought out by the football league. The ISL rules allow coaches to have six foreign players on the pitch at any point of the game, giving the other five spots to Indian players.
It is disappointing to see a lot of coaches using great Indian talents at their disposal sparingly. While many Indians have, recently as well as in the past, made the desired impact, they are still being used as fringe players or number-fillers. While the players have usually performed more than expected, it is still an unsolved mystery as to why the coaches have not used their potential to the hilt.
FC Goa, the finalists of last season, have had a stop-start campaign this ISL. Languishing at the bottom of the table, the team has seen a severe lack of quality in the foreign players. However, they have seen their Indian contingent take more responsibility making the team better, and thus, the trust. Since the introduction of Romeo Fernandes and Mandar Rao Desai in the starting line-up, Goa have looked a little more convincing both on the wings and in the link-up play ahead.
The tireless wing-backs have contributed to their team’s cause whole-heartedly and had a huge role to play in their last 2-1 victory against the NEUFC. Romeo Fernandes assisted and scored the winning goal, the other goal being scored by another Indian, Robin Singh. Without a doubt, Rafael Coelho and Julio Cesar have been very influential in FC Goa’s numbers in the attacking third, but the usual three-man foreign defensive line-up has usually been a liability to the side.
Playing a three-man backline should usually sort out defensive errors, but FC Goa’s state of affairs look to be in an inexplicable conundrum. Both their goalkeepers, Subhashish Roy Chowdhury and Laxmikant Kattimani have made an enormous 40 saves, also letting in 14 goals, the joint highest in the league. With such performances, questions can easily be raised at the defensive capabilities of FCG's predominantly foreign back four.
Though the Brazilian coach fielded 9 domestic players in the starting XI, he was compelled to do so by a slew of injuries and suspensions. However, his call was vindicated by the Indians. Fulganco Cardozo, who was benched even after proving his caliber, brought pace in the last match after replacing Rao Desai and helped his side keep the pressure on their opponents in the last match.
The same happened with midfielder Pratesh Shirodkar who is getting scarce playing time in the team because of foreign players who are playing in his position. The Goa-born midfielder is arguably a better option over Brazilian Trindade Goncalves, if and when he has been fit to play. One more name to add to this list is defender Debabrata Roy, who showed his worth and has made no mistake in guarding his flank whenever given the chance, even after spending most of the season on the bench.
It will be interesting to see what the Gaurs manager does when most his foreign players, including many compatriots are once again available to start. His team selection then will determine whether this newfound local focus was a flash in the pan or a positive change in strategy,
Coming to other Indian players throughout the league, it has been seen that coaches have not really given strong responsibilities to the Indians, giving them peripheral roles on the pitch. FC Pune City have played a lot of their matches with an all Indian backline, giving them the freedom to play foreigners in attack. With the Indian players in defence only conceding 8 goals so far in the tournament, it is clear that an all Indian backline can also deliver the goods.
Rahul Bheke, Gouramangi Singh and Narayan Das have been permanent members of the backline, with Dharmaraj Ravanan, Augustine Fernandes and Zodingliana Ralte also featuring regularly. The defence has been decent overall, although it has failed to keep clean sheets regularly. Their first clean sheet came in the win against Mumbai City in Mumbai.
The other Indian starters for Pune have come in midfield. Arata Izumi, until his injury, was accompanied by Lenny Rodrigues regularly in the first XI. While Rodrigues has had a tougher time adjusting to a more offensive position, Izumi has been quietly solid on the left wing. Habas has also given opportunities to Sanju Pradhan and Francis Fernandes on the wings. Yet, the notion that the Stallions remain heavily dependent on their foreigners in goal (Edel Bete) and offensively holds water. The team does not have any homegrown striker in its ranks.
The return of Eugeneson Lyngdoh could change that though. Having already netted the winner in his first appearance, the Bengaluru FC midfielder is easily one of India’s best midfielders at the moment. Capable of controlling possession and creating chances, Lyngdoh has been sorely missed by Habas and his side and his return has proven to be a vital addition to the Pune team.
Much like their regional rivals Mumbai City to have most of their Indian contingent starting at the back with Aiborlang Khongjee, Anwar Ali, Sena Ralte being the key starters in a back five that has often included as many as four Indians. In the metropolis too, the key attacking positions have been occupied by foreign recruits like Matias Defederico Leo Costa, Krisztian Vadocz and Diego Forlan. However, the return of Sunil Chhetri is certain to change that with the India skipper most likely to lead the line in the final phase of the season.
There has been a trend that no attacking positions have been perpetually given to Indians. Only Delhi Dynamos, the side which is currently leading the table, has played Kean Lewis as the attacking winger and the Mohun Bagan player has always delivered the goods for his team, scoring three goals and providing key assists throughout the tournament.
Anas Edathodika, Souvik Chakraborty and Milan Singh are almost immovable assets for the Lions. The players have always contributed immensely on the pitch, paying back the faith placed in them by Gianluca Zambrotta, the Italian coach. Thus, it can be argued that the impact of the homegrown players on the pitch has been central to a team’s success in the ISL. In the first season, Mohammad Rafi had scored in the dying moments to seal an even match in the Final for Atletico de Kolkata.
In the second season, Chennaiyin FC had Jeje Lalpekhlua and Mehrajuddin Wadoo as key players and they eventually went on to win the title. FC Goa, led by Brazilian superstar Zico, had reached the Final and had Romeo Fernandes, Mandar Rao Desai and Thongkhosiem Haokip to thank for their heroics on the pitch. It is confusing why coaches are still trying to sneak in points with a foreigner-laden XI when they have a lot of local talent at their disposal.
Kerala Blasters FC, the team which reached the Final in the first season, had an awful start to this campaign. Languishing at the bottom of the league table last season, the team were hoping for a revival, which was brought in by the introduction of Mohammad Rafi, the first season hero for ATK. The player showed a lot more attacking prowess and Kerala, after three boring games on the trot, looked a little threatening. During their barren spell the manager tried all sorts of permutations and combinations to produce goals, including starting with a three-man strike force. But, even in this phase he did not utilize the services of talented youngster Haokip who has an ISL hat-trick under his belt.
Talking about the Highlanders, veteran coach Nelo Vingada had said at the beginning of the tournament that he would use foreigners in defense more than in attack. The full-back pair of Nirmal Chettri and Robin Gurung have shown their quality in the backline whenever they’ve been given chances. In a clear case of wrong selection, Vingada chose to give a place to Reagan Singh, who has been below par in the league. Rowlin Borges, the talismanic and burly built defensive midfielder has started almost all games for the Highlanders and the team has looked to feed off well from him.
Holicharan Narzary, on the other hand, looks to be a misfit in a makeshift formation. Playing as a wing-back in recent games, the capable winger has been poor in tackling and the same mistake resulted in FC Goa’s equalizer in the other game. Seityasen Singh returned to the line-up against FCG after injury, scored a goal and proved his credentials yet again.
It is baffling to see the pair of Jerry Mawihmingthanga and Lallianzuala Chhangte not being given enough opportunities, when the whole country sees them as potential future stars for the Blue Tigers. If there has been one constant throughout the league for NEUFC, it has been the Indian ‘Spiderman’, Subrata Paul, under the bar. With the second highest number of saves in the league, Paul has usually conceded due to momentary errors from various players, both home-grown and foreign.
With Bengaluru FC players returning after the AFC Cup showpiece, there has been a clear indication that the quality and impact Indian players are providing in this league is rare to find. CK Vineeth joined Blasters on the day of the game against Goa, came on as a substitute in the last quarter of the match and sealed the win in the 97th minute. The striker kept knocking the scoring records in the next game, scoring a brace against Chennaiyin FC and killing off the South Indian Derby.
Sunil Chhetri straightaway made the starting XI for Mumbai on his return. It is a clear misconception/misreading of coaches in the ISL that only foreign players can create a winning impact. Believing in the Indian contingent has worked well for both Zambrotta and Steve Coppell, and already looks impressively impactful for Antonio Habas. While these coaches have learned and understood the importance of the Indian players, FC Goa’s victory with 9 Indians on the pitch further exemplifies the point.
It is a clear case of reading your opposition. Looking at Mumbai City FC or Chennaiyin FC, opposition managers would ask defenders and defensive midfielders to keep an eye on Forlan and the Dudu Omagbemi-Davide Succi pair respectively, which gives the much-needed freedom and space to the likes of Chhetri and Lalpekhlua to work their magic and put the ball into the net.
A closer look at the setup of the defending champions shows that despite the homegrown talents often being under-utilized in the ISL, Marco Materazzi has elected to be an anomaly as he has pledged to value the talent of the player more than his nationality, age or prominence. In almost every press conference, he repeats the same statement: “Whoever deserves to play, will play.”
The World Cup winner’s full-back positions have been occupied primarily by Indians, with Wadoo, Nallappan Mohanraj, and Jerry Lalrinzuala. However, Chennaiyin’s most important players remain foreigners: Raphael Augusto, Eli Sabia Filho, Bernard Mendy and Hans Mulder.
Materazzi’s transfer activity can be singled out as the sole reason as to why Indian players are on the periphery of happenings at the Marina Arena club. One major concern is the way the Chennaiyin manager has utilized Jayesh Rane and Lalpekhlua, with consistent underperformers in Dudu and Succi preferred to lead the line-up.
Delhi Dynamos, inarguably the best team in the league this season, have used their Indian contingent very smartly. Not trying to hide them on the pitch, Zambrotta has given stable responsibilities to each of them and with the kind of belief the players have received from the coach, their performances are a sight to behold. Milan Singh is a key link in the Delhi midfield, being the only player other than Souvik to have played maximum minutes for the capital team.
Edathodika and Chakraborty play crucial roles in the team as well. The centre-back is often the last line of defence in the team, echoing his coach’s belief in him. Chakraborty, playing as a makeshift left-back, has been one of the most consistent performers in the league, hardly giving any below par performance. The quality of the Indian players has blended well with the foreign contingent and thus the team is peaking at the right time and looks dominant in every match.
The league should focus more on the development of the Indian players, rather than using them as mere fillers. Coaches need to understand that it’s the Indians who are vying harder to impress and excel as they have a point to prove. With a little more motivation and coaching on the ball, every player must be able to reach a desired quality. The league, now, should start focusing more on Indian footballers and the six-foreigner rule should be reduced to four from next season.
This would ensure that Indians play key roles on the pitch. The four foreign players should provide the balance and necessary stardust, but should not have the sole responsibility of orchestrating the result as the scenario is now. If the ISL is to prove a watershed initiative for Indian football, the likes of Amrinder Singh, Alwyn George and CK Vineeth must start week-in, week-out.
With the national team growing in stature with passing time, it is high time the ISL gives the much-needed impetus to the Indian contingent. With the league growing with time and getting more exposure, the eyeballs of the football world are finally falling on India, which has been a residual sleeping giant in world football for a long time now. With loud knocks on the door for some time, Indian football looks to be on the right track. With a little more emphasis on grassroots development and the promotion of young talent, it will be an exciting preposition in the times to come.
Goal GIFS © ISL Media
Analysis by Khel Now's Delhi Corespondent Punit Tripathi with inputs from Miqdad Haider, Himangshu Rajkhowa, Ravish Narvekar, Praveen R. Paramasivam, Kushankur Rony Rakshit, Mrunal Nakashe and Khel Now News Desk.
Published: Wed Nov 16, 2016 12:34 AM IST