Sandesh Jhingan rose to prominence after a string of stellar performances with Kerala Blasters in the inaugural season of the Indian Super League (ISL) in 2014. Since then, he has been an undisputed starter for the Tuskers and subsequently for the Indian national team.
Before his breakthrough in 2014, he was playing for United Sikkim, a side that had conceded 63 goals in 26 matches in their debut outing in the top tier. The defender further honed his skills and developed as a player plying his trade in the ISL.
Similarly, ATK's Sumit Rathi, who won the Emerging Player of the Year award for his consistency throughout the 2019-20 season, had never played top tier football before coming on as a substitute against Odisha FC on November 24, 2019.
Apart from the winners of the Emerging Player gong, there are other names who have been a revelation over the six seasons. In 2016, Anirudh Thapa was inducted into the Chennaiyin squad only after Dhanachandra Singh got injured and the rest, as they say, is history.
Over the seasons, there have always been a handful of Indian players who have gone on to steal the limelight with consistency and hard work. There are ample shreds of evidence that highlight that Indian players, hailing from humble sporting backgrounds have found their footing and have gone on to excel in the top division. Under the tutelage of an able coach, young players have contributed and have even established themselves as starters, displacing a more celebrated counterpart.
I-League has been the talent pool for the ISL clubs as most outfits have regularly roped in standout players from the former to strengthen their squad. In fact, if we look at the current squads of the ISL teams we find that most of their players have their roots in I-League.
However, a more professional setup and better facilities have definitely accelerated their development. Edwin Vanspaul, Michael Soosairaj are two eminent examples who have taken their performances up a notch in ISL after doing well in the I-League. Moreover, former Indian Arrows' players like Amarjit Singh, Lalengmawia, Suresh Wangjam have also proven their mettle at the highest stage which further emphasizes the point.
It has also been witnessed that some of the players who have done well in the various youth leagues have the capability to replicate their form at the senior level as well. Udanta Singh was signed immediately by Bengaluru after he went on to become the top-scorer in the U18 I-League. Jayesh Rane was promoted to Mumbai FC seniors after his impressive shifts in the age group league and both of them shone in their debut season in the top tier. Udanta's assist to Sunil Chhetri for the winner in an AFC Cup group stage game against Maldivian side Maziya on 28 April 2015, went straight into the record books as he became the youngest Indian player to provide an assist in AFC competitions.
It would not be surprising if Odisha FC decides to promote Akshunna Tyagi and Rishabh Dobriyal in the upcoming season to the senior team straight from the youth squad as the two youngsters have been in prolific form in the Elite League, scoring 20 and 18 goals respectively in just 14 matches.
With patience and the right guidance, we find that Indian players have realised their potential. The need of the hour is to groom more such young players so that the clubs can perform better at the continental stage where they have to field seven domestic players.
ATK kept their trust in Prabir Das, backed him while he was out injured, and in this season he proved his critics wrong with exceptional performances. One can even argue that his contribution has been no less than an overseas player. He helped ATK clinch the title with tireless performances as a wing-back, helping his team both in attack and defense.
It is important that a club continues to invest and back a prospect at least for a couple of seasons even if the player fails to excite in his first year. Sahal Abdul Samad played only two matches in his first season at Kerala Blasters. But the management backed him and now they have a gem of a player at the centre of the park who has the capability to single-handedly change the complexion of a game.
Currently, a maximum of five foreigners can be on the pitch at a given time which is expected to be reduced to four in the future. With the implementation of the 3+1 rule, numerically there will be only one less overseas player on the pitch which might even lead the clubs to sign better quality foreigners.
If we take a look at the foreign players signed by all teams, only three or four actually perform consistently and make a difference. The rest do not actually contribute much and are not really proper upgrades on Indian players. Instead of keeping an average foreign player for big money, isn't handing a promising local player an opportunity the better option?
Now a counterpoint to this argument is that this might lead to an increase in demand for quality Indian players who, in turn, will demand higher wages. But isn't this a situation where a club's scouting department comes into the picture?. This will lead to more effective scouting of the various tournaments across the country, which could produce gems like Jessel Carneiro who came to ISL from relative obscurity of the Goan state league.
This will also mean youth players who perform stand a greater chance of progessing to the first team, a development which will spur them on.
The absence of a few foreigners might not necessarily compromise the quality of football in ISL. Instead, with more domestic players on the pitch, the talent pool for the Indian national team will receive a shot in the arm.
It's time for people to introspect and think about the long-time benefit for Indian football rather than short-term success.