The Indian football team’s humiliating defeat to lowly ranked Guam in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers has reignited the debate over the eligibility of PIOs for the national team. Just two years ago, the tiny US territory with a little over 1,50,000 inhabitants was swatted by India in a continental tournament. By infusing American-bred talent in its side, Guam turned the tables on India and currently tops the group that also includes Asia’s top-ranked team, Iran. After this latest humiliation, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has awakened and sent a request to the sports ministry to revise a contentious policy that bars PIOs from representing India in international tournaments.
Countries that don’t have enough talent to form a national team are tapping players from their diaspora. It’s not just Spain, Germany and the US, the AIFF has been roused to action because, over the last two years, this trend has caught on with India’s competitors. Afghanistan, Palestine, Pakistan and Singapore have all dug deep into their diaspora. The impact has been immediately visible. Exposed to competitive football, “heritage” players have helped raise the profile of their “national” teams, as when Palestine thumped Malaysia 6-1. Singapore, too, built its team almost entirely by inviting Singapore-origin players based in the UK to take on formidable Japan.
The government must soften its stance on its rigid policy at a time when the country is struggling to produce even one world-class player. Not just football, sports like athletics, basketball and tennis have seen talented players excelling abroad who are keen to represent the country of their origin. In any case, the idea of birth and domicile, so central to the notion of nationality once, is losing its preeminence. Clubs scout globally for talent, and national teams must do so too.