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ISL, I-League await domestic revision after AIFF approves reduction of foreigners

With the implementation of the "3+1" foreign player rule at the club level, India's national team setup could reap long-term benefits with the burgeoning of more local players.

Written by Debkalpa Banerjee | New Delhi |
Updated: May 10, 2020 12:11:30 pm
David Williams (R) was ATK’s sole AFC-affiliated player in the 2019/20 season. (Source: ISL)

The deliberation around reducing the number of foreign players in India’s domestic leagues was given a sense of finality on Friday when the Technical Committee of the All India Football Federation (AIFF), chaired by Shyam Thapa, recommended implementing the Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) “3+1” rule.

“The Committee discussed at length and unanimously recommended the implementation of the 3 (foreigners) + 1 (Asian) recruit rule for all domestic league matches after the 2021 season onwards, as per current AFC regulations for participation in AFC club competitions,” the AIFF said in a release.

The recommendation aims to reduce the number of legible foreigners on the field from five to four in both Indian Super League (ISL) and I-League from the 2021/22 season. At the moment, both the leagues allow the use of five non-Indian players on the pitch, with seven allowed to be registered.

The “3+1” structure — which has the support of national team head coach Igor Štimac — has a catch though. At least one foreign player has to be from an AFC-affiliated nation. The recommended regulation will pave way for unearthing further local talent and will facilitate the transfer of Asian players within the continent.

“Once the recommendation gets approved by the Executive Committee, then the rules pertaining to PIO (Person of Indian Origin) and OCI (Overseas Citizen of India) will be discussed for the 2021/2022 season itself,” an official told


Although India has made progress under Igor Štimac with their positional play and pressing routine, the results have been rather dispiriting.  They have won just one of their last ten matches, owing to a severe lack of goals. The Croatian had opined in March that the increased number of foreign players featuring in domestic leagues was coming in the way of India producing a future Sunil Chhetri.

The “3+1” recommendation will address that issue head-on, as it will open the gates for more domestic U21s to get into the first-teams of clubs. By decreasing the number of foreigners in the starting lineup, youth development at clubs will be boosted with valuable first-team minutes, just like it happened with the likes of Anirudh Thapa (Chennaiyin FC), Sahal Abdul Samad (Kerala Blasters) and so on.

The inclusion of foreign players — like Alessandro Del Piero, Florent Malouda, Diego Forlan, Nicolas Anelka — was initially celebrated for a marketing purpose, but the reality is that India has been accommodating sub-par foreigners for far too long now. Isn’t it time for, say, Bengaluru FC to start just Dimas Delgado, Juanan, Raphael Augusto, and Erik Paartalu (AFC), and cut off the extra baggage?


18-year-old Sumit Rathi won the 2019/20 ISL Emerging Player of the Season. (Source: ISL)

In Antonio Habas’ title-winning ATK side, two Blue Tigers earned special plaudits for their consistent performances at the back — Sumit Rathi and Prabir Das. Playing in opposite flanks in defence, both the Indians excelled in the 2019/20 season and shut the doubting Thomases up with their hard work.

ATK kept their faith in the left-footed teenager and the injury-prone right-back through the course of the entire season, and they ended up with their record-breaking third ISL title. Similarly, coming from I-League, players like Michael Soosairaj (ATK), Edwin Vanspaul and Amarjit Singh (Chennaiyin FC), and Suresh Wangjam (Bengaluru FC) are examples of how domestic talent can reap, if not more, equal rewards as any other foreign player.

Even Zlatko Dalic, the head coach of Croatia, believes that India must have fewer foreigners to develop players from the grassroots level. “It is difficult to build a solid base of local talent if too many foreigners play in the domestic leagues. [In Croatia,] we have good coaches in our system who have been there from the grassroots level. That is what has enabled players like Modric, Rakitic, and Mandzukic to break through,” he said to PTI.

After the rule comes into place, with proper investment in youth facilities and scouting systems of respective clubs, the national team setup is set to receive a shot in the arm.


Although nations higher up in the FIFA rankings like Japan (28) and Australia (42) have relaxed regulations for foreign players, it needs to be noted that those nations have a deluge of international players plying their trade in other continents. For India (108), that certainly is not the case. On the contrary, the domestic setup itself has just a handful of clubs from which players can be chosen — 10 from ISL, 11 from I-League, and 18 from I-League 2nd Division.

By adhering to AFC’s rules, India can increase the number of local players getting first-team minutes under their belt, thereby improving their chances for a national team call-up. To put other nations under the scanner, Iran (33) allows its clubs to register just four foreigners, South Korea (40) allows its clubs to register a maximum of five foreigners, Qatar (55) allows clubs to register just five foreigners, and China (76) allows only four foreign players to be registered with its clubs.

If these scenarios are anything to go by, it is evident that complying with AFC’s regulation at the club level will bring about a long-term benefit for the national setup and help in a burgeoning culture of football in the nation.

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