Kochi: The Indian Super League (ISL), now in its seventh season, has definitely revolutionised Indian football and given domestic players the much-needed exposure.
As the league is committed towards ensuring the growth of domestic players, a club could sign a maximum of six foreigners in the squad including a compulsory Asian-origin player, with only four foreigners on the field at a time, as per the new regulation.
This is down from 11 who could be registered in the very first edition back in 2014. Though the number of international players has come down, there will be no dearth of quality, and definitely, the fans will not be bereft of high-profile action.
But question marks remain as to whether Indian players, especially strikers, are getting enough opportunities as all the franchises continue to rely on their foreign recruits to deliver the goods.
Youthfulness over experience
The league, scheduled to begin in Goa on Friday, will witness a five-month module with eleven teams - ATK-Mohun Bagan, SC East Bengal, Bengaluru FC, Chennaiyin FC, FC Goa, Hyderabad FC, Kerala Blasters FC, Mumbai City FC, NorthEast United FC, Jamshedpur FC and Odisha FC – battling it out for the title.
The past few months saw the teams busy at work, fortifying their squads with the best talents from across India and around the globe. Most of the foreign recruits by the eleven franchises are already proven stars on the global stage.
In the past, ISL franchises had been blamed for bringing in retired and over-the-hill foreign footballers. Today, one visible change is the sheer number of young overseas players joining the league.
Blasters spend big
One of the teams which went on a signing spree is Kerala Blasters. They retained only one foreigner from last season's squad - Spanish attacking midfielder Sergio Cidoncha.
The team’s forward line-up will have a different complexion this season following the departure of a number of established players. Their most prized acquisition is Englishman Gary Hooper. The 32-year-old striker is being brought in as a direct replacement for Nigeria-born Frenchman Bartholomew Ogbeche, one of the outstanding performers for the Yellow Brigade last year.
Their backline featuring Zimbabwean Costa Nhamoinesu and Bakary Kone from Burkina Faso will have a distinct African flavour this season. The midfield, which was in utter chaos last season, is powered by two top-notch foreign recruits - Spaniard Vicente Gomez and Argentinian Facundo Pereyra.
The number of foreign players allowed in the starting XI is now five. It will be reduced to four from next season onwards.
Lack of game time
There are certain positions where franchises prefer foreign recruits to domestic players. Many, including national team coach Igor Stimac, have raised concerns over the lack of game time for local players, especially strikers. They have every reason to complain, the data shows.
In the 2019-20 edition of the ISL, there was only one Indian among the top-10 goal scorers. Moreover, Indian strikers spent less than half the time on the pitch as compared to local full-backs. Almost all Indian forwards who play for the national team saw little action at their respective clubs. Bengaluru FC's Sunil Chhetri was the only exception.