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AIFF Explores Options with FIFA to Allow OCI Cardholders to Represent the Indian National Team: How Can it Help India?

The All India Football Federation (AIFF) is actively pursuing the inclusion of Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) and Overseas Citizens of India (OCIs) in the national football teams. AIFF President Kalyan Chaubey revealed that a list of potential candidates has been identified for this initiative. AIFF Maintains Ongoing Communication with the Government of India to Grant Legal Document Status to OCI Cards, Enabling Cardholders’ Eligibility for National Team Representation—Approval, if granted, anticipates a minimum timeframe of 6-8 months. Despite the apparent promise, the practical implementation of this idea poses significant challenges.

AIFF Football House Image Credits ESPN India AIFF Explores Options with FIFA to Allow OCI Cardholders to Represent the Indian National Team: How Can it Help India?
AIFF Football House, Image Credits – ESPN India

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The AIFF is confronted with the complex task of:-

  • Either persuading players, some of whom may be in the prime of their careers, to relinquish their foreign passports—potentially limiting their opportunities to play internationally.
  • Or advocating for a change in India’s existing legislation. The current law prohibits non-Indian citizens, including OCIs and PIOs, from representing the national team.

Previous Attempts and Challenges

Yes, there have been previous attempts to attract players with Indian origin to represent the national football teams, but these efforts have not been successful. One notable instance was in the late 2000s when an attempt was made to bring Michael Chopra, who had played for England’s age group teams and prestigious clubs like Nottingham Forest and Newcastle United, to play for India. However, this endeavor did not materialize.

While the practice of “importing” athletes has not been widely implemented in India, it is a concept that has found success in various Arab countries and China. In these regions, foreign athletes have been naturalized, allowing them to switch nationalities and play for the country they have acquired citizenship in. Despite the challenges faced in the past, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) is currently exploring avenues to make this a reality for Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) and Overseas Citizens of India (OCIs).

Legal Hurdles

Currently, individuals with PIO (Person of Indian Origin) or OCI (Overseas Citizen of India) status are ineligible to play for India due to existing regulations prohibiting dual citizenship. To be eligible, they must renounce their current passports and embrace Indian citizenship. Additionally, athletes are required to reside in India for a minimum of 12 months before being eligible to apply for citizenship.

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Why PIOs Hesitate to Relinquish Foreign Citizenship

Many players of Indian origin are hesitant to relinquish their foreign passports primarily due to stringent work permit regulations in Europe, especially for athletes from countries with FIFA rankings higher than 70. English player Yan Dhanda highlighted this concern, stating that surrendering his passport would restrict him from playing professionally in the UK and some European clubs due to India’s FIFA ranking.

  1. What is Indian Football Team’s FIFA World Rank Currently?

    Presently, India is ranked #102 globally.

This rule has historically impacted players, such as Sunil Chhetri, who faced challenges in joining English club Queens Park Rangers in 2009. Despite QPR’s interest in signing Chhetri to a three-year deal, he was denied a United Kingdom work permit because India did not hold a FIFA ranking within the top 70 at that time. Presently, India is ranked #102 globally.

Examples of Indian-Origin Footballers Representing Indian Football in History

Arata Izumi is a notable example of an Indian origin footballer who played for India. In 2012, the midfielder relinquished his Japanese passport and acquired Indian citizenship. Subsequently, he represented India in nine matches and was a part of the squad that secured the runner-up position at the 2013 SAFF Championship.

Screenshot 2023 12 29 230013 1 AIFF Explores Options with FIFA to Allow OCI Cardholders to Represent the Indian National Team: How Can it Help India?
Arata Izumi, Image Credits – Instagram

Beyond his international endeavors, Izumi continued his football career in India, initially in the I-League and later in the Indian Super League, until 2018. Currently, he serves as the coach of Inter Kashi in the I-League. Izumi’s journey reflects the commitment of some individuals of Indian origin who choose to embrace Indian citizenship to contribute to the country’s football landscape.

Potential Targets: Identifying Top Indian-Origin Players AIFF Could Consider Approaching

1. Dilan Markanday, 22, Winger:

Currently with EFL Championship side Blackburn Rovers, Dilan Markanday Previously played for Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur, becoming the first British Asian and player of Indian descent to represent the men’s first team in a competitive match.

Dilan Markanday Image Credits Sky Sports AIFF Explores Options with FIFA to Allow OCI Cardholders to Represent the Indian National Team: How Can it Help India?
Dilan Markanday, Image Credits – Sky Sports

2. Danny Batth, 33, Centre Back:

With extensive experience, he has played throughout the English football league system. Danny Batth had stints with Wolverhampton Wanderers, Stoke City, and Sunderland before joining Norwich City.

Danny Batth Image Credits Sky Sports AIFF Explores Options with FIFA to Allow OCI Cardholders to Represent the Indian National Team: How Can it Help India?
Danny Batth, Image Credits – Sky Sports

3. Sarpreet Singh, 24, Attacking Midfielder:

Sarpreet Singh spent 3 years at the Bayern Munich reserve team and made two appearances for the first team. He currently plays for Hansa Rostock in the second division of the Bundesliga. Also played a significant role in New Zealand’s victory over India in the 2018 Intercontinental Cup.

licensed image 1 3 AIFF Explores Options with FIFA to Allow OCI Cardholders to Represent the Indian National Team: How Can it Help India?
MUNICH, GERMANY – JUNE 20: Sarpreet Singh of Bayern Muenchen runs with the ball during the Bundesliga match between FC Bayern Muenchen and Sport-Club Freiburg at Allianz Arena on June 20, 2020 in Munich, Germany. (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)

4. Yan Dhanda, 25, Winger:

Yan Dhanda is a highly-rated attacking midfielder with roots in the Liverpool youth team. He has played four seasons with Swansea City and is currently with Scottish Premiership club Ross County. He has also expressed a desire to play for India.

licensed image 2 3 AIFF Explores Options with FIFA to Allow OCI Cardholders to Represent the Indian National Team: How Can it Help India?
SWANSEA, WALES – NOVEMBER 25: Yan Dhanda of Swansea City during the Sky Bet Championship match between Swansea City and Sheffield Wednesday at Liberty Stadium on November 25, 2020 in Swansea, Wales. Sporting stadiums around the UK remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

5. Manprit Sarkaria, 27, Winger:

Manprit Sarkaria plays for Austrian club Sturm Graz and was a leading scorer for them last season.

licensed image 3 3 AIFF Explores Options with FIFA to Allow OCI Cardholders to Represent the Indian National Team: How Can it Help India?
BERGAMO, ITALY – NOVEMBER 09: Manprit Sarkaria of SK Sturm Graz looks on during the line up prior to kick off in the UEFA Europa League match between Atalanta BC and SK Sturm Graz at Stadio di Bergamo on November 09, 2023 in Bergamo, Italy. (Photo by Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images)

Impact of Importing Indian-Origin Players: The Positives & The Negatives

Can the inclusion of players of Indian origin contribute to the improvement of Indian football? The answer is a bit nuanced. While it may serve as a short-term strategy to enhance the overall quality of Indian football, relying heavily on imported players might not be highly effective in the long term. If these foreign-born players occupy crucial positions on the field, similar to how international players do in the Indian Super League (ISL), it could potentially have negative consequences.

The success of utilizing naturalized or imported players is often observed in countries that lack a strong foundation in grassroots development. Examples include Afghanistan and Pakistan, which have recently called up players from their diaspora. However, in the case of India, with a well-established grassroots system and multiple tiers of football competitions, the impact of Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) and Overseas Citizens of India (OCIs) may not be a sustainable solution.

The “import” of players of Indian origin can have both positive and negative implications for Indian football. Here are some considerations:

Positive Aspects

Short-Term Improvement: Bringing in experienced players of Indian origin can potentially elevate the standard of Indian football in the short term, contributing to stronger performances in international competitions or domestic leagues.

Skill Enhancement: These players may bring advanced skills and a wealth of experience from playing in higher-profile leagues, which could positively influence the development of local talent.

Negative Aspects

Long-Term Impact: Relying on imported players might not be a sustainable long-term strategy for the growth of Indian football. The focus should remain on developing and nurturing homegrown talent.

Key Positions Concern: If imported players take up crucial positions on the field, similar to the role of foreign players in the Indian Super League (ISL), it may hinder the development of local talent by limiting their playing time and opportunities.

Grassroots Development: Unlike countries with limited grassroots development, India already has a decent grassroots system and multiple tiers of footballing action. In such a scenario, the impact of Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) and Overseas Citizens of India (OCIs) might not be as profound or lasting.

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