Foreign quota, ACL entry, home-away format: As ISL season draws to a close, AIFF has big calls to make for future editions
Fifty-three Indian players have found their names on this season’s Indian Super League (ISL) scoresheet. Fifty-eight provided assists. On both fronts, the number is higher than in previous seasons.
As the ISL group stage enters its final stretch and the final match is played next Monday, these two stats stand out. The reason for the increased attacking contribution of Indian players is simple: more playing opportunities.
This is the first season where only four strangers are allowed in Game 11 at any given time, fewer than previous editions. This meant that the Indians, who previously lacked playing time, had more playing opportunities, especially in forward positions where they could directly influence the game. This was a feature from day one, when Sahal Abdul Samad of the Kerala Blasters and Liston Colaco of ATK Mohun Bagan scored some fine goals to pave the way for the rest of the Indians.
Indian Football Poster Boy – Liston Colaco, 8 goals, 3 assists. what an amazing season pic.twitter.com/OtUD2gF6lh
— Karthik Raj (@kartcric) February 27, 2022
It’s a trend national team coach Igor Stimac would be pleased with as he prepares for international friendlies next month as well as Asian Cup qualifiers in June. Meanwhile, a recent decision by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) will concern Stimac.
Last week, the continental body announced that the number of foreign players in the 11 had been reduced from the existing four to six (including one mandatory from Asia) for club competitions. This means that more than half of the players on the pitch could be foreigners, which would lead to a big reduction in playing time for local players.
For India, the rule change comes at an inopportune time. It took seven seasons for the ISL to comply with the previous AFC’s existing rule of having a maximum of four imports in the 11. Ironically, in the season they chose to implement it, the AFC has changed its criteria.
The rule is not binding on the leagues. If they wish, the Indian Football Federation (AIFF) can continue to maintain the cap of four foreigners in squads, which has been enforced this season and has clearly helped Indian players.
The AIFF hinted at maintaining the status quo, which Stimac also wanted. But it remains to be seen whether the league and the clubs, who will face Asia’s best in the Champions League, will agree, given the impact of foreigners on results as well as quality.
The Asian Champions League conundrum
Capping foreigners is not the only decision the AIFF will have to make.
Along with the foreign player rule, the AFC has also changed its club competition calendar – from autumn-spring to spring-autumn – to synchronize it with the global transfer window. The new edition of the Asian Champions League, in which Mumbai City will participate, will start in April and end in February 2023. The next one, however, will not start until September 2023.
Therefore, the AIFF faces a bizarre problem. The winners of the group stage of the current ISL season have been assured of a place in the Champions League. However, by the time the 2023-24 edition arrives, the 2022-23 ISL season will also be over. This means India will have two contenders for a spot unless the same team wins both seasons.
At present, Hyderabad FC are top of the table and in pole position to claim the ACL spot. As things stand, if they do eventually qualify, Hyderabad will have to wait 16 months before they can play in the Champions League. And if so, what will happen to next season’s winners is a question that will have to be answered.
Round-trip format for the return
While some crucial points remain unanswered for next season, one thing seems certain is that after two seasons in a bubble, the country’s top two tiers, the ISL and the I-League, are set to return home and outside. format.
Since the start of the pandemic, the ISL has been held in Goa while Kolkata hosts the I-League, which will resume on March 3 after the season was suspended in December following a Covid outbreak among the teams.
ISL organizers have already written to clubs, asking them to confirm venue availability in their base towns. Almost all teams look certain to return to their usual venues for the 2022-23 season, except Bengaluru FC, whose return to Kanteerva went under a cloud after Karnataka Sports Minister KC Narayana Gowda said the stadium would no longer be used for football.
On Sunday, I-League chief executive Sunando Dhar said it would be “best for everyone” to return to the home-and-away format “as soon as possible”. “The plans we have for the 2022-23 season are to have it back and forth,” Dhar said, adding that they were also exploring the possibility of allowing fans into the stadium this season.