The 2020/21 season of the Indian Super League (ISL) marks the first time in its seven-year history that no foreign player is featuring as a goalkeeper in any of the 11 clubs. It has been a trend over the past few seasons of the ISL that clubs have increasingly opted to go for Indian goalkeepers, thus letting them put more foreigners in the outfield. And, now, all the clubs reposed completely faith in Indians.
ISL teams are only allowed to have seven foreign players in their squads and out of them, only five can play at any point in a match. Goalkeepers are rarely substituted in a game, and it means that teams will be left with four foreign players to choose from for their outfield positions if they have one of the five between the sticks.
This has resulted in the presence of foreign goalkeepers gradually decreasing over the course of the last six seasons.
Former India captain Bhaichung Bhutia feels it is only natural for clubs to avoid signing overseas players as goalkeepers if there is a limit on the number of foreigners they can play. However, he also feels it is a trend that is beneficial for younger Indian goalkeepers.
“When you put a limit on the number of former players, any team would not hire a goalkeeper. The most important positions are striker, midfield, and at least one of the two centre-backs,” Bhutia told IANS.
“It is a good thing for Indian goalkeepers, they need to take that opportunity. It is tactical but it is also an opportunity for the Indians,” he emphasised.
In the maiden edition of the ISL in 2014, seven foreign players turned out for seven clubs as goalkeepers, with Mumbai City the only team to exclusively feature an Indian — Subrata Paul — in the goalpost throughout the season. Four years later, only Odisha FC featured a foreign name in the goalkeeper’s position. Moreover, Spaniard Franscisco Dorronso had to share the number one spot for Odisha with young Arshdeep Singh, who started in nine out of 19 matches last season.
Dorronso went back to Spain before the start of this season and Odisha opted bring in Ravi Kumar and Kamaljit Singh from Mumbai City FC and Hyderabad FC respectively. Arshdeep, 23, meanwhile, was brilliant for Odisha in their last match against FC Goa, making as many as eight saves to keep his team from getting a hiding.
However, the limit on numbers is only one of the factors that has led to teams fielding Indians as goalkeepers, according to Abhik Chatterjee, head of football operations, Odisha FC.
“It has to do with how the coach wants his team to play and whether the goalkeeper can help them execute that strategy,” Chatterjee told IANS.
“If there is an Indian goalkeeper who fits that profile, I am sure teams wont have a problem in playing them. Every team would want to have most of the foreign players in the outfield, mostly along the spine as centre backs midfielders and strikers,” he said.
Chatterjee said that there has been a rise in the number of talented Indian goalkeepers pushing for spots in the league.
“For Arshdeep in our case, he had an injury at the start of the season and the two games he has played for us he has done very well. Last season, we had Franscisco Dorronso but Arshdeep played almost half of the games for us. We saw that he is not that far off, so we took that decision last year itself (to make him the first choice goalkeeper) and he was slowly eased into things last year. This year we hope he and Kamaljeet push each other and do well for us,” he said.
The goalkeepers have had their hands full this season. With players coming into the season with almost no pre-season, mistakes at both ends of the pitch have been a common feature in matches and goalkeepers have often had to react to mean deflections and loose passes from their own team mates.
Jamshedpur’s TP Rehenesh has made the most saves thus far this season with a whopping 18 in just five matches, till December 14. Bengaluru FC’s Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who is also India’s first choice goalkeeper, has made 13 saves, also in five matches, till December 13.
Former India and East Bengal goalkeeper Atanu Bhattacharya said that this trend is also indicative of the fact that the quality of foreign players playing in the ISL is not as high as it was expected to be.
“Indian goalkeepers are playing very well. This season there have been a few new goalkeepers and they are playing well but the standard of the foreign players has not been as good as everyone thought it would,” Bhattacharya told IANS.
“Earlier, a team with the better foreign players won and Indians in the team used to back them up. Now, what is happening is that the foreigners are making mistakes and teams with better Indian players are doing better,” said Bhattacharya, who was part of the Asian All-Star XI in 1984.