THE INDIAN SUPER LEAGUE has taken a step towards aligning its rules with AFC competitions when it comes to foreign players.
In a long-awaited decision taken today, FSDL have decided that from the 2021-22 season onwards ISL teams will be allowed to have a maximum of 4 foreign players on the field; 1 of whom must be from an AFC country. The teams will be able to have 6 foreign players per squad.
The move comes after a steep drop in the performance of Indian football clubs in AFC Cup, right after India's top division lost its foreigner rule symmetry with AFC norms in 2017.
Till the 2016-17 season, I-League allowed only 4 foreign players per squad including 1 from an AFC country, in line with Asian competitions. During this time multiple top flight clubs like Dempo SC, East Bengal and Bengaluru FC had reached the semi-finals and the grand final of AFC Cup. From the 2017-18 season, when AIFF allowed I-League and ISL to run in parallel, the top division increased its foreign player limit to 6. The ISL, which for the first time got an Asian slot that season, allowed 8 foreign players per squad. Both I-League and ISL at that point were allowing 5 foreign players on the pitch, creating a domestic football system that for the first time was completely non-aligned with the AFC competitions.
Since then, no Indian club has managed to win a single AFC Cup knockout stage match. In 2020, Indian club football hit an all-time low point when Bengaluru FC got knocked out of the AFC Cup qualifiers; the first Indian club to suffer that fate. This has created a situation where India's prized ACL group stage slot, awarded due to an expansion to the AFC Champions League, is likely to be taken away unless Chennai City FC top their group in AFC Cup 2020, and pick up a win or two in the knockout stages.
Faced with this decline several important voices in Indian football spoke out in favour of taking Indian club football back to symmetry with Asian football (3+1 rule) that existed in the top division league prior to 2017-18. Notably, in March 2020, Indian national team head coach Igor Stimac spoke out emphatically about the need to reduce foreign players in Indian domestic football. Following this, in May 2020, AIFF implemented the AFC norm of 3+1 foreign players per squad in I-League from the 2020-21 season onwards.
However, FSDL decided against immediate implementation of the same rule; and decided to go ahead with allowing ISL franchises to sign 7 foreign players and fielding 5 on the pitch. The only rule change that was implemented was the mandate that one of the foreign players must be from an AFC country.
But after today's decision, ISL teams from 2021-22 season will only sign 6 foreign players, and field only 4 at a time; their biggest progressive step towards achieving symmetry with AFC rules.
When ISL started out as a private tournament in 2014, the competition allowed teams to sign 11 foreign players and field 6 at a time. The new rule will mark a sea change in the league's structure from its original image, and shows that FSDL are taking Asian competitions very seriously. The ISL organizers reportedly quashed a vocal minority among ISL franchises who demanded an increase in foreign players, rather than a decrease, to allow Indian players to play a larger role in the future; and increasing the speculation that in near future the ISL, just like the I-League, will embrace full symmetry with AFC rules and bring down the number of foreign players to 4 per squad.