When head football coach Stephen Constantine aired his views on reinforcing the team with Indian-origin players settled abroad in the wake of the humiliating defeat against Guam, he was talking about a common practice in football worldwide, one that has seen Brazilian-born Diego Costa and Deco represent Spain and Portugal respectively.
Trinidad and Tobago and Republic of Ireland have used overseas players to successfully qualify for World Cup finals as has Iran. Afghanistan, Guam, the Philippines, Palestine, Pakistan too have fielded footballers who weren’t homebred.
It is another matter that Constantine’s thoughts might have touched a raw nerve with the government.
It was in December 2008 that the sports ministry made it clear that People of Indian Origin (PIO) and Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) can forget about playing for India.
The ministry was seeing an invasion of Indian sports by PIOs who were better equipped to showcase their talent at the international level while harming the prospects of homebred athletes who had to compete against them for national berths.
AIFF secretary Kushal Das’ comment that “we haven’t communicated with the ministry to revoke the policy. We are still in the process of examining the situation” hints at serious discussions in the federation. It was learnt that the AIFF is seeking clarity from Fifa on whether OIC card holders are eligible for internationals.
But even as Constantine seeks to go beyond India to bolster his team, it is unlikely the ministry will have a rethink. Sports secretary Ajit Sharan said: “The chances of withdrawing the policy are absolutely minimal. We are not even thinking about it.”
Another ministry official said the thought behind the rule was the honour of representing the country should not be given to foreign citizens. “And that’s the way it should be when we consider that homebred athletes are now doing so well in multi-discipline events such as the CWG, Asian, and Olympic Games. This means a lot is happening at the grassroots.”
Das denied that the AIFF is not serious about grassroots. “Who says the federation isn’t doing enough and looking at offshore players? We are building the U-17 team for 2017 World Cup. AIFF has a grassroots plan but it will take time to deliver.”
It is in that time that the AIFF is considering using foreign footballers of Indian origin to stem the slide.
Former India skipper Bruno Coutinho though said the idea to allow PIOs may “make the federation lethargic”. “The federation should work to strengthen the foundation. There should be one development model throughout the country where the age-group of 14-17 is groomed,” he said.
The issue first arose when the Squash Rackets Federation of India restricted the representation to only those players who have Indian passport. The matter was challenged by the affected players in the Delhi High Court. But in December 2008, on the directions of the court, the ministry formulated a uniform policy.
Following the ministry’s decision, the tennis federation was the hardest hit. Davis Cupper Prakash Amritraj and three women players — Sunitha Rao and Shikha and Neha Uberoi, all having US citizenship — were not considered for selection.