India national coach Igor Stimac has called the coronavirus pandemic and the resultant halt in the football calendar a "perfect opportunity for India to dramatically change" the structure of domestic football.
Stimac, who was speaking to WION, said there was an urgent need to reduce the number of foreign players in club football and to have a longer season with more matches. He urged the All India Football Federation (AIFF) to work with the central government and tweak citizenship regulations so that foreign-based footballers of Indian origin can represent the national team.
"We have been working behind closed doors on many aspects," he said. "One is regarding the selection of players. We have been talking to the government to change the citizenship regulations."
The debate over allowing Overseas Citizens of India (OCIs) and Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) to play for the Indian football team is not new -- former coach Bob Houghton had tried to get Michael Chopra, then a 23-year-old striker with Cardiff City, to play for India as long back as in 2006. Indian government rules, however, disallow any Indian national from holding dual citizenship. While Japan-born midfielder Izumi Arata did play for India in 2013, it was only after he took up an Indian passport at the expense of his Japanese one.
In March, the AIFF had put in a proposal with the sports ministry about allowing PIOs and OCIs to play for India. One of the players Stimac is reportedly keen to bring into the national team is Iran's Indian-origin player Omid Singh, though AIFF secretary general Kushal Das says there hasn't been any response from the Centre since.
"We were also in touch with FSDL (Football Sports Development Limited, AIFF's marketing partners) to increase the length of the season, to have a long-term calendar, and the need to restructure the Durand Cup and the Super Cup," said Stimac. "Going forward, what will be crucial is the number of games. We cannot stop our season at the end of February and football needs to be played until mid-May. I am told that it cannot happen as it overlaps with the broadcast of the IPL (Indian Premier League) but broadcast is not important, what is important is that players play more games and bring more quality to the national team."
Stimac also reflected on his team's performance in their 2022 World Cup qualifiers thus far -- where they are yet to pick up a win in the group. "The task was not easy to change from a kick-and-chase football to a more possession-based football. We have introduced many young players with more technical abilities. India is no longer the team that loses easy games, but we are not scoring enough goals," he said. "I am feeling depressed and tired at repeatedly saying we have to reduce the number of foreign players in Indian domestic football. It will take time to grow as a football nation. If the government can change the citizenship regulations then we can get seven or eight players of Indian origin who are playing abroad, and that would change our results dramatically."
While the AIFF's technical committee recently recommended that all domestic football switch from the current regulation of allowing five foreigners to start to move in line with AFC's rule allowing four foreigners only, including one from an AFC nation, the Indian Super League (ISL) has only committed to bringing that rule into effect from 2021-22.
ESPN understands that while there has been talk of expanding the number of league games in the ISL to 27 by introducing a third round of matches, the AIFF has sought a one-year exemption from the AFC on expanding the length of the season. The federation has cited the pandemic as well as the postponement of the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup from November 2020 to February next year as reasons for the same.