Ahead of India’s opening match of the Under-23 Asian Cup qualifier against Oman on Sunday, a form guide: since November last year, half of India’s 23-man squad has played 900 minutes or less of football. In other words, it means they have sat on the bench for nearly 50 percent of their club’s matches last season. Some have played an hour or less of club football in the last year while back-up goalkeeper Prabhsukhan Gill of Kerala Blasters has not even played for a minute.
This includes players from India’s 2017 under-17 World Cup side, on whom high expectations were placed and were seen as the core of the national team in the coming years. That may still happen – players like Dheeraj Moirangthem, Suresh Wangjam and Lalengmawia, among a few others, have all impressed at the club and national team level.
But the lack of playing time for most other under-23 players is a worrying trend across all levels of Indian football, something national team coach Igor Stimac touched upon earlier in the week.
It’s one of those situations where everyone agrees on what the problem is. A solution, too, is on the table. And yet, no one, at least among those who take decisions, seems to be showing any urgency to make a decision.
For years, now, it’s been fairly obvious to even an uninterested follower of Indian football that the domestic season needs to be prolonged for it to be of any help to the national team. The Indian Super League (ISL), which began in 2014 as a three-month sideshow to the I-League, took over as the country’s premier competition but in its eighth season, it is only four months long.
No serious footballing nation has a league that is so short. India’s premier league gets over at a stage when, in most mature leagues, it’s just the halfway point of the season. Even Bangladesh, the 187th-ranked team that has troubled India in their last three encounters, have a league that’s eight months long. So do other countries in India’s vicinity.
After India’s underwhelming SAFF Cup campaign, which ended with India clinching the title, Stimac broached the subject once again. “Working like this, where players come to the national team from an off-season, it’s terrible. Soon, we will have a normal season like in other countries. We want to get top 10 in Asia and (for that) we need to have the same quality of the league,” he said in a media interaction.
Stimac comes across as an optimist. But in reality, no one knows how soon it will be before India has a ‘normal season like other countries.’
It was supposed to happen a long time ago. When the Asian Football Confederation handed India a Champions League slot, the entry was based on the condition that each club would play a minimum of 27 matches in the ISL and the league will run for a minimum duration of eight months.
At the time, the ISL had 10 teams, which meant each side would play each another thrice. It’s a format that has been successfully implemented in the Australian League where a team is allotted two home matches against their opponent in one season, and one home match the following term. Now that the ISL consists of 11 teams, with the inclusion of East Bengal, it can be assumed that every team will play 30 matches each.
The All India Football Federation (AIFF), which is responsible for the leagues that are held in the country, had initially decided to start the expanded league in 2020. Understandably, that did not happen because of the pandemic. It was promised last year that the longer season would be implemented in 2021. Now, 2021 has passed and the AIFF has ‘assured’ that the rule will be enforced in 2022.
The impact of this unnaturally short season is felt on the national team. The logic is simple: the more you play, the better you get. For Indian players, it’s anyway a fight to get meaningful playing time under their belt during a season. As clubs chase victories, the domestic players are often overlooked in favour of foreign players, who occupy central areas of the field.
Consequently, barring a few, a majority of Indian footballers end up warming the bench for large parts of the season and that affects the national team. There is little evidence that things will change this time. The new ISL season will get underway in Goa next month and Indian players are once again likely to be pushed to wider areas of the pitch, where they have very little direct involvement in play.
For Stimac, this will be a huge concern. Earlier in the week, the Asian Football Council’s executive committee decided to host the final round of the 2023 Asian Cup qualifiers in a centralized venue, rather than the usual home-and-away format because of the pandemic. Matches will be played in a round-robin format over three match days in a single window in June 2022 – on June 8, 11 and 14.
Given their current world ranking, 107th, India are set to be placed in Pot 1 during the draw for the qualifiers, which means they are likely to play against teams ranked lower to them. But if current performances are anything to go by – India struggled to beat teams like Nepal, Bangladesh and Asia’s lowest-ranked team, Sri Lanka – rankings will not matter a lot.
It’ll eventually come down to how well prepared Indian players will be. The AFC’s decision to have just three matches instead of six means there will be very little margin for error. The players will have to be sharp from the beginning. And that can happen only if they get more playing time, instead of warming the bench for half of the season as is the case with half of the country’s under-23 players.