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Sunday, April 18, 2021

Explained: Indian football’s desperation for ‘overseas citizens’, how it points at a systemic failure

Dozens of nationality switches take place each year in football. The AIFF has been pushing for this because many of their opponents in the Asian and World Cup qualifiers have been doing it, thus having an impact on the results as Stimac pointed out.

Written by Mihir Vasavda , Edited by Explained Desk | Mumbai |
Updated: April 8, 2021 9:45:52 am
The most recent, albeit indirect, request was made on Friday by chief coach Igor Stimac in an interview with the AIFF.

Since the start of 2015, almost 90 footballers have played for India. From Mizoram to Mumbai, Kerala to Kolkata, scouts have recognised talent from almost every part of the country. Yet, going by the statements made by current and former coaches, these players do not seem good enough to raise the standard of the national team.

Little else explains the desperate and repeated pleas by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) to the Indian government to allow Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) to play for the national team. The most recent, albeit indirect, request was made on Friday by chief coach Igor Stimac in an interview with the AIFF.

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Talking about the underwhelming results against Afghanistan and Bangladesh in the 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asian Cup joint qualifiers, Stimac said: “Sometimes I get the impression that we have too much opinion of ourselves when it comes to opponents like Afghanistan or Bangladesh. Let me remind you that Afghanistan has allowed Overseas Citizen players to play for the national team.

“They now have 13 players coming from European leagues. They are competing in Germany, Poland, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden. They also have two players playing in Australian clubs, and one player in the USA top division.”

The Croat was speaking after India’s 6-0 loss to the United Arab Emirates in a friendly match on March 29. A day later, Yan Dhanda, an Indian-origin attacking midfielder who played youth football at English champions Liverpool and now plays for Swansea, tweeted his ‘disappointment’ over the defeat and complimented Stimac for ‘giving new players opportunities.’

It did not take long for some to put two and two together, and there is now a renewed push to include OCI players in the Indian team.

Past attempts

Stimac isn’t the first football coach to make this request, and neither is this his first attempt. One of the first Indian coaches to broach this topic was Englishman Stephen Constantine during his first stint from 2002 to 2005. His compatriot Bob Houghton tried later that decade. Dutchman Wim Koevermans also pushed for this during his brief spell and Constantine lobbied ferociously in his second stint that began in 2015.

Days before the lockdown was imposed in March 2020, top AIFF officials held a meeting with the sports ministry to discuss this topic following a nudge by Stimac. In that meeting, the AIFF submitted a list of around 30 Indian-origin players who can be considered for the national team – an exercise they had done in 2015 as well but was rejected.

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Government policy

The issue of OCI players has been one of the most contentious points in Indian sport in the last decade. In December 2008, the Sports Ministry, under MS Gill, formed a policy in which it was decided that only Indian citizens would be eligible to represent the country in international events.

This made the PIO and OCI card holders ineligible to represent India unless they gave up their foreign citizenship and applied for an Indian passport – Indian law does not allow dual citizenship. The government has so far maintained that allowing Indian-origin foreign athletes to play for India would hamper the prospects of home-grown sportspersons.

The AIFF, however, believes their inclusion will improve the national team, currently ranked 104 in the world, considerably.

Global trend

Dozens of nationality switches take place each year in football. The AIFF has been pushing for this because many of their opponents in the Asian and World Cup qualifiers have been doing it, thus having an impact on the results as Stimac pointed out.

Last year, Brazil-born Elkeson became the first player to be called up for China’s national team despite not having Chinese ancestry. The forward, whose Chinese name is Ai Kesen, gained the country’s citizenship via naturalization. Countries like Qatar too have adopted this policy.

Systemic failure

But these countries also have a robust system at home, which India still lacks.

While sourcing players from abroad can be a short-term fix, the constant and repeated push for this is also a reminder of the country’s systemic failure in developing youth players.

Sixteen years – the time period since the proposal was first made – is a long enough time to work on grassroots and churn out players. But the AIFF and clubs, jointly responsible for this, have fallen short on this front. Today, there are a handful of clubs and academies that invest in youth development, a non-glamorous task that requires heavy funding, takes several years for results, and requires patience.

At the moment, only a handful of clubs from the North East states, the Minerva Academy in Chandigarh and the AIFF’s academies are routinely producing players.

Edu Bedia, a midfielder who is the captain of Indian Super League side FC Goa, wrote on social media: “There is talk that it would be good to nationalise a foreign player to raise the level of the national team, but we must look more towards the long term. It would be more efficient and wise to invest in coaches and infrastructure in the lower levels. And in a few years, the growth and improvement in Indian football will be there for all to see.”

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