WHERE ARE THE INDIAN STRIKERS?
Though the names Odafa Okolie, Jose Barreto, Edeh Chidhi may not sound familiar to most of the Indians but the people who follow Indian football are well versed with these names. These are some of the many foreigners who have made a name for themselves in Indian football and most of these players play for big clubs like Churchill, East Bengal, Mohun Bagan etc.
The new rule by AIFF restricts the number of foreigners to 3 including a PIO (Person of Indian origin). For many years the AIFF had allowed a club to have four foreigners in their starting lineup but this rule was severely criticized by Bob Houghton (national team coach) and now this number has been reduced to three. Some might argue against this saying that foreigners have done wonders for Indian football but I beg to differ. While I am not fully against foreigners playing in the I-League, I think their presence in the domestic league should be regulated.
I am happy with the decision taken by the AIFF but I am not fully convinced that this rule will make much of a difference. Instead it would have made more sense if AIFF had come out with the rule which allowed a club to play with only two foreigners (including a PIO) and out of these two only one be allowed to play as a striker.
I say this because except a few clubs like Dempo, JCT and Mumbai FC most of the other big clubs like Churchill, Mohun Bagan, Chirag United, Pune FC have all relied on the services of the foreigners to score goals as a result of which the Indian strikers have not gotten sufficient opportunities to nurture their talent and to prove their worth. In this year's I-League out of the 485 goals scored 287 were scored by foreigners and rest 197 by Indians which is considering only 4 foreigners were allowed to play in each team. This has had adverse repercussion on our national team which has a strong defence and mid field but lacks sufficient number of quality strikers. Though we have the services of Sunil Chhetri and Baichung Bhutia, we need to soon find a suitable replacement for Baichung as he is above 30 and may retire in a year or two.
Domestic league serves as an important foundation in helping the players to develop their talent and to polish their skills and eventually assume an important role in the national team. This can be seen by the fact that none of the clubs had foreigners as their goal keeper because of which we not only have a superb goal keeper in the form of Subrata Paul but also have good bench strength in the form of Arindam Bhattacharya and Kalyan Chaubey. This has had direct positive implications on our national team where Subrata Paul helped India to win the Nehru Cup on penalties and Arindam Bhattacharya did the same for the Indian under 23 team in the SAFF Cup. Same logic applies to our defense and mid field where India has produced players like Steven Dias, NP Pradeep etc but the same cannot be said about the forwards. Thus, it is of utmost importance that Indians are given the opportunity to play in the position of a striker.
Moreover, this year's I-League has proved that Indians as strikers are no less than their foreign counter parts. Take the example of Mohammed Rafi who is the highest goal scorer of this year's I-League amongst the Indians and has managed to finish in top 5 list of goal scorers. This is a remarkable achievement considering he was out of favor for many years and was never given a proper opportunity to prove his worth. Now with Mahindra getting disbanded he has signed a contract with Churchill for more than 10 million for two seasons. Another example is that of Abhishek Yadav who single handedly saved Mumbai FC from getting relegated by scoring two important goals in their do or die encounter with Mohun Bagan. Baljit Saini before accident was amongst the highest goal scorer and Joaquim Abrances who grabbed the opportunity after Chhetri left for Kansas City and scored an impressive 8 goals are some of the other examples of Indians proving themselves in the role of a striker.
It is high time that AIFF takes a suitable action to address the issue of quality strikers in our national team by slowly reducing the number of foreigners in the. Only then we will be able to produce more Chhetris and Bhutias.
About Author / Additional Info:
I am a third year law student studying in Pune with a deep interest in Indian sports especially Indian football.