Should the country’s football continue to live in the perennial quest of the promised land or embrace the avenue of the PIOs? We try to put things into perspective.
The past is funny, even more so when associated with Indian football. Despite being considered as one of the better footballing countries in South Asia, the sub-continental giants could not keep up with other Asian heavyweights and were soon out of the limelight.
However, over the years and after several ups and downs, India has once again made it to the top 100 in the FIFA rankings. Although, the Blue Tigers could have grabbed a chance to attain their best ever ranking had they defeated the Kyrgyz Republic in the AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers, the AIFF and their head coach Stephen Constantine seem content with the outcome.
While reflecting on the success of the other Asian heavyweights, one needs to understand that playing in the top leagues throughout the world has massively helped the players of Australia, Japan, Korea Republic and others. Whereas, India has only had a few players (Mohammed Salim, Bhaichung Bhutia, Sunil Chhetri, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and so on) who had short European stints before coming back to play in the domestic leagues.
In recent years, players of Indian origin plying their trade in the top foreign leagues have shown interest in playing for the Indian national side. However, as India does not support dual citizenship and asks for an Indian passport to be able to play for the Blue Tigers, these professionals have been denied the opportunity to do so.
Danny Batth was captain of the Wolverhampton Wanderers side that was recently promoted to the Premier League
Around the footballing globe, the likes of the Netherlands, France, Norway, Australia, Wales and other nations are all using or have used Indian origin players at some point in time. The readers do not need to be reminded of these nations’ footballing excellence. Asian countries such as the Philippines have emerged as a powerhouse by enabling foreign players with Phillipino ancestry to play for their national side.
As a matter of fact, the 2014 World Cup-winning side of Germany had six players with different origins (e.g. Mesut Ozil, Jerome Boateng) in their ranks, four years ago. Meanwhile, the Indian origin players playing in different leagues worldwide are opting to play for their host country after not being eligible to play for India.
Only a year ago, Wolverhampton Wanderers’ defender and captain Danny Batth had expressed his wish to play for India. The then sports minister, Vijay Goel, also expressed interest on Twitter to meet the Wolves’ captain. Along with the sports minister, Batth also met the Indian national team coach Constantine, after which he spoke to Khel Now, stating, “He cannot select me currently due to the regulations in place which make it virtually impossible for a player of Indian origin to play for India, without sacrificing their position at clubs in England/Europe and moving to reside in India for a year before even applying for a passport.”
India could have this starting XI right now if the PIOs were allowed to play for the Blue Tigers
Since then, Batth’s dream of donning the jersey of the Blue Tigers has been held up due to this dual citizenship issue. Ironically, under his leadership, Wolves have been promoted to the Premier League recently and India have failed to grab their best ever FIFA ranking. Talk about oxymorons, right?
Apart from Batth, the likes of the Narsingh brothers (Furdjel and Luciano), Neil Taylor, Harmeet Singh and Michael Chopra- all have been standout performers for their respective clubs while Luciano Narsingh and Taylor have also excelled in national colours, for the Netherlands and Wales respectively. One might wonder, what difference could these players have made to the Indian national side had the immigration rules been changed to suit their chances of playing for the Blue Tigers?
While PIOs (Players of Indian Origin) have always faced a hurdle in representing India at the highest level, the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017 saw the country turning a new leaf. Canada-based goalkeeper Sunny Dhaliwal and USA-based defender Namit Deshpande were included in the Indian U-17 squad. Although, only Deshpande made an appearance at the World Cup, their inclusion in the squad raised an important question. If India can open its arms at the junior level why are the seniors being denied the same benefits?
For instance, in their latest outing, the Blue Tigers fell victim to a more physical and demanding Kyrgyz side, despite defeating them at home last year. Both goals scored by the Central Asians were tap-ins and could have been prevented had a more experienced and skilful defender been part of the Indian ranks. Dear AIFF, how highly would you rate Batth, now?
The saga, however, continues. Have you heard about Netan Sansara? A seasonal defender with Indian ancestry along with the experience of playing in the EFL League One, Scottish Premiership and the Danish 1st Division, he’s screaming for a national call-up. The 28-year-old could have been a vital cog in Constantine’s side alongside Batth, had the AIFF made it possible for PIOs to play for the national side without the dual citizenship issues.
This is not an issue which has been addressed by only Indian fans nationwide. Three years back when India lost to Guam in a World Cup Qualifier, the issue was addressed by head coach Constantine himself. “Losing to a team of Americans…” the Englishman mentions in his book “From Delhi To The Den.” “I would love to select two or three Indian-origin players from Europe or North America”- Constantine wrote before adding, “It’s not a long-term solution. If you pick too many, you harm Indian-born players, and the team loses its integrity.” The fact that the (in)famous tactician understood the need of the PIO players, leads one to question whether he has taken his concerns to the authorities or not?
Watch Harmeet Singh score a penalty goal against FC Barcelona
It does not even end here. A Norwegian youngster had caught the eye of the then FC Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola. Indian origin midfielder Harmeet Singh was part of a Valerenga FC squad and had scored a well-taken penalty against Guardiola’s side. Nicknamed the ‘Norwegian Messi’, Singh was then showered with praise by the current Manchester City boss after the game. Imagine Singh starting for the Indian side in the middle of the park. The thought seems exciting, right? Unfortunately, it will never come to fruition as Singh has already played for Norway now and will not be eligible to play for India.
Sports and politics never settle in the same bracket. From a logical point of view, the Indian government and the AIFF need to sit together and solve this issue. Do we lack in talent in the footballing context? It’s not impossible considering the quality and development the rest of the world has achieved. Do we have the ability to attain such success or not? More exposure tours or readymade players with substantial experience at significantly higher levels? It’s a hard choice for the Indian government and the AIFF, but a necessary one, nonetheless.