Stephen Constantine was one of the first India coaches to broach the topic in the early noughts. Bob Houghton followed it up in the second half of that decade. Wim Koevermans also tried his luck during his brief spell in the country and Constantine lobbied much more ferociously in his second stint a couple of years ago. Now, it is Igor Stimac’s turn.
Nudged by the Croat, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has renewed its push for the inclusion of Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) and Persons of Indian Origin (PIO) in the national teams, which is currently not allowed following a government policy framed in 2008.
AIFF general secretary Kushal Das said he had held a meeting on this subject with sports minister Kiren Rijiju, then sports secretary Radhey Shyam Julaniya and Sports Authority of India director general Sandip Pradhan days before the nationwide lockdown was imposed in March.
“We have submitted a detailed proposal to the ministry and they are reviewing it. They said they will get back to us soon but of course, a process will have to be followed so it might take some time. But compared to the previous discussions, the current discussion seemed more positive,” Das said.
In its proposal, the AIFF has 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 which was rejected. The federation has also cited examples of other countries, including Asian champions Qatar, who have actively taken this route to improve their teams. A technical committee member said they could also introduce a quota for PIO and OCI players in Indian Super League and I-League teams.
It is learnt that Stimac, who completes one year as India coach this month, also requested Rijiju to amend the policy during a coach’s webinar last week. On Friday, the AIFF’s technical committee, too, briefly touched upon the issue but, via a media release, said “it will wait for clarity from the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports before the topic can be discussed at a later stage.”
The status of PIO and OCI players vis-à-vis national teams had 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, given that Indian laws do 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 108 in the world, considerably. In its proposal to the ministry, the Indian FA has said they will scout for players in the second divisions or above of reputed leagues. Iran’s Indian-origin winger Omid Singh, who signed for East Bengal last month, is one of the players Stimac is keen to bring into the national team set-up.
“If every country is allowing players of its origin to have second passports and play for the country, why shouldn’t India do that? It would help us. I already received seven or eight names of Indian players who are abroad somewhere, who are born there,” Stimac has said in the past.
Although the government has explicitly ruled out any kind of relaxation to the rule, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during a meeting with Rijiju last November, asked the sports ministry to prepare a database of ‘global players of Indian origin’, to present it as a ‘theme’ of a future Pravasi Bhartiya Diwas. Additionally, the ministry was also told to examine the possibility of ‘organising a global sports event/competition of these sportspersons of Indian origin’ in the future.
What do international rules say
While the government does not allow Indian-origin players to wear national colours, the two biggest sports federations have clear rules on this issue. To meet FIFA’s eligibility criteria, a player has to satisfy one of the following requirements: must be born on the territory of the relevant Association; his biological mother or biological father was born on the territory of the relevant Association; his grandmother or grandfather was born on the territory of the relevant Association; he has lived continuously for at least five years after reaching the age of 18 on the territory of the relevant Association.
The International Olympic Committee’s rules, meanwhile, do not distinguish between nationalities obtained through birth, bloodline or residence. The key point of the rule is that an athlete who wishes to compete for a different country must fulfill a temporary condition, which states that at least three years must have elapsed since the athlete’s last participation on behalf of his former country.
Internationally, it is common for an athlete to play for a country of his origin, with dozens of nationality switches taking place each year. The AIFF has been pushing for this because many of their opponents in the Asian and World Cup qualifiers have been doing it. Most recently, 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.