Steve Coppell was scheduled to attend a press conference after only four rounds of the Indian Super League domestic player draft. It was still early in the programme – there were another 11 rounds for the Jamshedpur FC coach to go through with as many picks to make.
Till that point, the Englishman had picked star defender Anas Edathodika, for a hefty Rs 1.1 crore, veteran goalkeeper Subrata Pal, and defensive midfielders Mehtab Hossain and Sauvik Chakrabarti. He knew the Indian players well, having coached an improbable Kerala Blasters to the final last year. After four rounds, the coach was happy with his progress. “Every team would want to make sure that they’re solid at the back. After four picks, we’ve got a strong foundation,” he says.
Tasked with managing a new franchise, the former Manchester United skipper has relied on domestic players to fill in key positions to steady the roster. It wasn’t just him – this was a strategy that majority of the 10 franchises adopted.
For the fourth season, the league has done away with the requirement of a marquee player. At the same time, a new regulation dictates that a minimum of six Indian players must be on the field at any given time, an increase from the five needed till the last season. Previously, a lot of strategising would revolve around the foreign signings with Indians playing the support role. But with the changes, it’s the domestic crop that faces an added responsibility. “The first few picks is like choosing the spine of the team,” says Mumbai City coach Alexandre Guimaraes. “And that helps to integrate the foreign players that we have in mind.”
Teams need to pick a minimum of 15 and maximum of 18 Indian players. With no high profile — and expensive – international players needed, teams could spend freely. There is however, a salary cap of Rs 18 crore in place, which holds no restriction for Indian players, but limits spending on foreigners to Rs 12.5 (teams need a minimum of seven foreigners and maximum of eight).
Consequently, the teams haven’t shied away from splurging. More than a crore was spent in signing seven Indian players who were retained or contracted via draft. Additionally, five of the 10 franchises opted to cut into their budget for foreign players by making expensive domestic signings. Bengaluru FC, who retained India captain Sunil Chhetri for a record 1.5 crore, and picked up the likes of Lenny Rodrigues (60 lakh) and Harmanjot Khabra (53 lakh) in the draft spent the most on Indians, and now have only Rs 11.99 crore to sign their required seven foreigners.
“You didn’t really have to think about the money because of the importance of the Indian players to make the team,” says Mumbai City CEO Indranil Das Blah.
“It all comes from that change in the rule for minimum Indian players needed on the pitch. It’s helped teams wise up to the fact that this is the way to improve the home players.”
Some, like Bengaluru, have to take the Asian Cup considerations into account. Only four foreign players are allowed in the AFC Cup, which means the onus on the Indian players is more. “We will play our AFC Cup match in a month and have qualified for the 2018 edition, as well. So for us, it is important to have the best Indian players, including back-ups for each positions,” Bengaluru FC technical officer Mandar Tamhane says.
There is also an added focus on the young players. Barring a few from the senior guard, the likes of former India internationals Gouramangi Singh and Syed Rahim Nabi did not make the list of 138 players that were eventually selected from the player pool.
It’s a trend that has changed the role of the foreign players, and enhanced that of the homegrown talent. “We always wanted to put up a young side to give us that burst of energy. We’ll try and get some older foreign players to balance out the squad,” says Delhi Dynamos director Rohan Sharma. “It’s also a good thing that there are no marquee players which gives more importance to the Indian players,” he adds.
Pune City meanwhile spent a total of Rs 3.63 crore on their home purchases, including the retained players, making it the lowest total among the teams.
All the big names in Indian football secured a spot in the tournament that is now the top flight league in the country.
Most took a risk to enter their name in the draft, forgoing offers from I-League clubs in the hope of catching the attention of ISL teams. Yet with that scrutiny and vote of approval has come an added responsibility. The players, on their part, seem ready for it. “I relish the responsibility otherewise there’s no fun in playing,” says defender Sandesh Jhingan, who was retained by the Blasters for Rs 1.2 crore. “It makes you feel like you’re more than just another guy in the team.”