Calling the Indian Super League (ISL) a “quick punch and go”, where little is done to develop Indian footballers, Kerala Blasters’ coach Steve Coppell, 61, said he didn’t understand the purpose behind the three-season old competition.
“Is the purpose to develop players or to build legacy? I don’t know,” said Coppell here on Monday, one day before their ISL3 game against Atletico de Kolkata. The former Manchester United player and Manchester City coach batted for a longer league.
Coppell also said players’ development is inadequate. “Facilities for young players are at a minimum. Somewhere, the ISL has to have the responsibility to develop young players so that India as a footballing nation can grow and be proud of their game,” he said.
Each ISL franchise has at least 14 Indians on the roster but approximately only half get regular game time because the competition allows six foreigners in the playing 11. That means over 60 Indians aren’t playing regularly though not all are young.
But it is also true that in ISL 3, teenagers such as Chennaiyin FC’s Jerry Lalrinzuala has played 956 minutes, Delhi Dynamos’ Chinglensana Singh got 666 minutes and Atletico de Kolkata’s Bidyananda Singh was featured 176 minutes over four games. Lalrinzuala is one of the five India youth team players signed by Chennaiyin FC on three-year contracts.
Coppell also spoke about the need to develop boys aged six and above under better coaches. In three seasons though, there has been an increase in grassroots activity among the franchises and outside, especially in cities such as Kochi and Chennai that don’t have I-League teams yet.
Franchises conduct grassroots festivals, train boys thrice weekly and players from there are scouted by the Reliance Foundation. What these under-14 players don’t have is enough competitive matches but that is not a problem restricted to the ISL.
Two ISL franchises have also adopted age-group leagues and Atletico de Kolkata have a team playing in the third division of the Kolkata league. FC Pune City are participating in the under-16 and under-18 I-League this term and have taken over former I-League team Pune FC’s academy.
When the ISL started in 2014, franchises were told to have an academy by season 5 or 2018. The jury is out on how feasible that is but ATK principle owner Sanjiv Goenka has said they could have one functional in two years.
Like FC Goa coach Zico, Coppell too called for a gradual reduction in the number of foreigners. “The foreigners need to be reduced every four, five years but then Indians learn from them also.”
It has to be seen whether the ISL heeds the advice of two big names in football but it can’t be denied that reducing imports would also mean more Indians in the playing 11. It would also save nearly R 3 crore annually, said an official with a franchise requesting anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to the media. The money saved could be invested in youth teams and infrastructure.