India’s humiliating defeat to Guam in the 2018 FIFA World Cup and 2019 AFC Asian Cup Preliminary Joint Qualifier has once again launched a discussion, if Indian football does need the help of Players of Indian Origin (PIOs) and/or Overseas Indians (OCIs) to strengthen the Indian national team.
The discussion on the inclusion of footballers of Indian origin is a more than a decade long one and it has been always a controversial one. I have always supported the cause of PIOs in Team India and I would like to recall that Arunava Chaudhuri and I pushed the topic for the last 14 years with various bodies including the All India Football Federation (AIFF). We even scouted PIOs all around the world and created a PIO Database. Some of the players even trained with the Indian national team setup during Stephen Constantine’s first tenure at the helm of Team India.
I still believe and support the idea to have quality PIOs/OCIs footballers in the national team – at all age groups and genders! I think the choice to have PIOs/OCIs in the Indian national team is definitively something we need as an option and this option shouldn’t be prevented by laws by the Government of India.
The defeat to a Guam national team with mostly US-born players is just another example that we are not taking on the pitch with equal preconditions. And the reality is that most national teams around the world make use of foreign-born players who have some roots to the respective country – including top football nations like Brazil, France, Germany, Italy or the Netherlands!
A look at the 2014 FIFA World Cup squads gives you an idea how foreign-born players are a vital part of national team football. 15 foreign-born players were part of the Algerian squad, while Switzerland had six of them in their squad. Cameroon (5), Ghana (5), United States (5), Bosnia & Herzegovina (4) follow in the list. Germany had two foreign-born players in their World Cup winning squad.
Indian fans and officials refusing to accept PIOs/OCIs in the Indian national team say that these players don’t have the national pride and the connection to India to represent the country. But my experience is that many PIOs/OCIs mostly have a strong bond with India and that many of them are more patriotic about India than most people on the sub-continent can assume. And I think most PIOs/OCIs reading this article will agree to my opinion.
The laws by the Government of India are stopping Indian sports in general – be it football, tennis, athletics, etc. – to progress with equality of opportunity compared to other countries. No one is saying that it would be the only solution to strengthen the team and take it to the next level, but it would be a much needed catalyst. We need to make use of the quality players available around the world. But these players need to be quality players and they must be able to strengthen the Indian team. There is no sense to call-up PIOs/OCIs just for the sake of having these players in the team!
PIOs/OCIs are just one component of the pyramid to form a strong national setup. People often mix-up the PIO/OCI discussions with topics like grassroots development and more. But you can’t do that because these topics are two very different animals!
India is denying itself a big chance to utilise foreign-born Indian origin players for wrong patriotic (!?) reasons, while other nations including the top nations make full use of the option to call-up quality players to their national teams.
World football is played to certain rules, but India can’t afford to play the game with its very own ones and we can’t expect to go further unless there is a change… in laws, mindset and vision!