Indians can now look to playing for Asian football clubs

February 8th, 2009 - 11:33 am ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, Feb 8 (IANS) Imagine young Indian footballers like Sunil Chettri turning out for Al Ahli of Saudi Arabia or N.P. Pradeep donning the jersey of South Korea’s FC Seoul. The day is not far because a new rule of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has opened a window of opportunity for Indian players to play for top clubs in the region.

The AFC in October had announced that in all the professional leagues run on its format, clubs can field four overseas players but one of them has to be from the Asian continent.

The step has been taken to promote Asian talent and will come into effect from this year’s Asian Champions League and Asian Cup for which the Federation Cup and the I-League winners qualify from India.

South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have already implemented the rule and India is likely to do so from the 2009-10 I-League.

While I-League coaches feel fielding four overseas players is not in the interest of Indian football, the rider to include one player from the region should help home-grown footballers to find their way into some of the prosperous leagues in the region instead of going westward.

Some overseas clubs have already shown interest in Pradeep, Chettri and Steven Dias. While Chettri went to England for trials at Coventry City, Pradeep and Dias are in touch with clubs in Europe and the United States.

On young India forward Chettri’s Coventry trip, former national coach Sukhwinder Singh of JCT told IANS that penetrating into European clubs is “tough but not impossible”.

“While it is not easy to get into European clubs, it is not impossible as Bhaichung (Bhutia) has proved. The Indians can at best get into the lower division clubs, but even there they can’t be sure of a regular place. What is the big deal of warming the bench? Instead, if you get a chance to play in a top club in Saudi Arabia or Japan, it is much better,” he said.

India captain Bhutia was the second Indian player after Mohammad Salim to play in a foreign league. While Salim played for Scottish club Celtic in 1936, Bhutia had a three-year stint (1999-2002) with English team Bury. Bhutia also had a three-month stint in 2006 with Malaysia’s Perak on loan from East Bengal.

Speaking on his experience, Bhutia said: “It is tough for Indian footballers to get a work permit in England. We should cash in on the new AFC rule. Leagues in South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia are of a high standard and Indian players will benefit playing in them.”

Mohun Bagan’s Moroccan coach Karim Bencherifa has a different take. He says Asian clubs will be interested in the Indians because, one, they have qualified for the Asia Cup finals and, two, the country’s champion club Dempo entered the AFC Cup semi-finals.

“Playing in the Asia Cup is a big thing. The spotlight will be on the India squad and some players are bound to get noticed. They should try their luck in South Korean, Iranian and Saudi Clubs. If an Indian club can make it to the AFC Cup semi-finals, I don’t see any reason why the players can’t strike it rich,” he said.

India coach Bob Houghton feels it is just a matter of time before one player makes the grade overseas and then paves the way for others.

“It won’t be long before the first one goes and does well and then many more will follow. When I went to China in 1998 there were no Chinese playing outside of China and after eight years there were seven or eight players in the Premiership. So once clubs become aware that there are good Indian players they will take more of them,” he said.

It should happen sooner than later. Indian football has come a long way and is looking up.

(Abhishek Roy can be contacted at

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