CHENNAI: It’s finally official! I-League has completed its transformation to being ISL-lite by adopting the same foreign-player rules as the latter.
A meeting of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) Executive Committee took the decision on Tuesday to tweak foreign-player rules — previously four international stars, one of them Asian — for the upcoming season.
“The AIFF Executive Committee has taken the final decision with regards to the number of foreign players in the upcoming Hero I-League 2017-18,” said an AIFF statement. “The clubs will be allowed to register six foreign players, out of which at least two players have to be from an AFC member association. The clubs can field a maximum of five foreign players in a match, out of whom at least one has to be from an AFC member association.”
The decision follows a meeting of I-League clubs, where a majority of team owners had protested the proposal put forward by the two Kolkata clubs, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan.
Even after the decision was made official, team owners continued voicing their displeasure. “The I-League has just gone backwards, just when the ISL was thinking forward by reducing a foreign player,” said Ranjit Bajaj, owner of Minerva Punjab FC. “This decision has really taken us by surprise, as we expected the status quo to be maintained. These foreign players are going to take the place of an Anirudh Thapa or a Vinit Rai. Obviously, when you have the choice between an 18-year-old kid and a foreign player on the bench, you are going to opt for the latter.”
Robert Royte, owner of defending champions Aizawl FC, said that this was a backward step for Indian football. “The officials have decided this. So we have no choice but to follow it,” he said. “We are helpless in this regard. I haven’t decided how to go in for the season, but I’ll discuss with my team and take a call.”
One of the major concerns about the rule change is the standard of foreigners who will play in the league. With ISL teams snapping up most of the better ones, there is concern that the I-League will be filled with random Brazilian and African imports.
“Obviously that will be the case, for only East Bengal and Mohun Bagan can afford to spend a lot on foreign players. The rest of the teams will have sub-standard ones,” Bajaj said. “As far as Minerva are concerned, we will only play foreign players if they are significantly better than our Indian players. We are not going to play them for the sake of it.”
The rule change will also impact budgets of I-League clubs, many of whom were considering investing most of their resources in developing local youngsters. “Right now, the plan is to go with the 3+1 rule, because of our budget,” said Chennai City FC owner Rohit Ramesh. “We will see where we can cut down.”
Ramesh though hoped that the new rule meant I-League clubs would get to test their skills against ISL teams in a Super Cup. “I hope bringing the number of foreign players on par with ISL is a step towards having a Super-Cup format where we play ISL teams.”