Ever since the advent of Indian Super League (ISL), there has been a greater interest in Indian football. Not only has there been an injection of glitz and glamour to the domestic football scene, it has also co-incided with an upturn in form and rankings of the national team.
One of the positives of the ISL has been the fact that Indian players have had exposure to top-quality foreign coaches and their training methods apart from rubbing shoulders with talented foreign players. In fact, development of young Indian players has always been one of the stated goals for the league.
Two-time ISL champions Chennaiyin FC, have some talented Indian youngsters in their squad with the likes of Anirudh Thapa, Vishal Kaith, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Jerry Lalrinzuala plying their trade with the Chennai-based club. And head coach Owen Coyle, who took over the club in December 2019, is somebody who remains committed to the development of young Indian players.
In a candid chat with Goal, the former Ireland international spelt out why he felt helping the local players was one of his priorities when he chose to take up a job in India.
"It’s a very good league (ISL). And the development of the Indian players is a very important thing for me. Looking at Indian players at my club, I’ve loved every second of working with them. The attitude they have, the willingness they have to work and get better is fantastic," he said.
The 53-year-old went on to list out the measures India have to implement in order to ensure the creation of a talent pool that can keep churning out quality players which will help the ISL and the national team. First thing he did spell out was the reduction in number of foreigners in the in the ISL. Currently, a team can field 5 foreigners in their starting XI but Coyle wants the teams to adhere to the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) standards which is applicable in AFC continental competitions. AFC regulations permit a team to field only four foreigners, out of which one must be from an Asian country.
"We had a meeting between all the ISL coaches the other day. The AFC competitions have this 3+1 criteria. So, If you reduce the number of foreign players in the team, you are giving an opportunity to a young Indian player. That rule, if adopted in the ISL, can only help," he said.
Coyle then went on to emphasize how important it is to have a thriving coaching structure at the grassroots level which will hand a level a platform for talented kids, irrespective of their socio-economic background. He also called for more investment at the lower levels of the game.
"I come from a country where the whole fabric of football and the whole institution is around 150 years old and that is not the case with India. There is no doubting the talent in the country. India globally is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Obviously, Cricket is huge in the country. But have a look at football. The potential is there and if there is investment at the grassroot level it can be realised," he said.
"Look at the Indian players in my team. If a good coach had got them 10 years ago they would be better. I’m not saying the coaching here is bad here or anything. What I’m saying is, If you’re getting top quality coaching at that level throughout India, how big of a talent pool are you going to have? That helps the ISL and the national team," he added.
Coyle, in fact, went on to claim that if there is investment at the right stage along with good coaching, qualifying for the 2026 World Cup is not an unrealistic aim.
"Why can’t India qualify for the World Cup? The size of the country, the talent pool is there. What you have to do is be organised better right from the grassroots. And give kids all over the country a chance. Not just the kids from big cities but make sure those in the villages also get chances. Make sure those kids do not miss out. Give everybody a level playing field. Find facilities for those small places as well because you might uncover a gem," an enthusiastic Coyle said.
"It could be amazing with investment. We need more sponsors and more people to come on board. And If they do, India could reach the 2026 World Cup. Why can’t they do that? They could do that with the right system in place."
Another suggestion from the former Bolton Wanderers manager was to increase the number of matches in the ISL, something he had brought up in the coaches conclave recently in Mumbai as well. Coyle feels increasing the number of matches from 18 to 27 will only help more Indian players get match experience, for which there is no substitute.
"The foreign players are fantastic in the league. But as coaches, we have an obligation to help the Indian players fulfill their dreams and ambitions. We need to increase the number of games in order to do that.
"If I have a talented young player who I think is not ready for first-team action, I can send him out on loan to get game time. If there are 27 games instead of 18, then these players will get more game time. Talented players like Farukh (Chowdhury), Jerry, Thapa, Chhangte all become greater players with more game time. Training is great but there is no substitute for game time," he said.
Of course, Coyle also said the ISL schedule could be tweaked in such a way that there is ample time between matches, which in turn, will translate into more coaching time for Indian players.
"Also, we need a better schedule which is more week-to-week, it will help with coaching. Right now, when we play 2 games in 4 days, the focus is only on recovery. There is no time to coach these players. A week-to-week schedule is good for everybody. The Indian players get to grow and it benefits the national team," said Coyle.
Underlining his commitment towards honing the Indian players in his charge, Coyle said as he signed off, "We are here to win, of course. But we are also here to help and make the local players better."