As the league phase of the Indian Super League (ISL) draws to a close on Sunday, it’s time to take stock of the competition so far, played in a bio-bubble in Goa.
The ISL has always prided itself as an avenue where the best Indian talent can mix it up with quality overseas players. One man who will be buoyed by the performances he has seen from Indian players throughout the tournament will be the national team head coach Igor Stimac.
Plenty of national team regulars like Pritam Kotal, Sandesh Jhingan, Sunil Chhetri have done well in the ISL this time around. However, it would be the emergence of those on the fringes that would have gladdened Stimac’s heart.
The likes of Manvir Singh, Liston Colaco, Bipin Singh have all provided him a welcome selection jigsaw ahead of the national camp that is set to begin next month as the Indian team prepares for the World Cup qualifiers in June.
But, more importantly, the young brigade of Indian players produced by the All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) Indian Arrows project have really stood out.
The Arrows project, started with the aim of ensuring talented teenagers get enough competitive action at a crucial period in their development, is bearing fruits. The Arrows have blooded the precocious talents identified by the AIFF in the I-League against stronger sides and the ISL teams are reaping the rewards of that approach.
One only has to take a look at the youngsters who have caught the eye with mature and enterprising performances that have belied their age to know the impact of the Indian Arrows project.
A quick glance at the India team that played in the 2017 under-17 World Cup in India reveals that those talented boys were the first Arrows batch after the project’s revival.
Lalengmawia ‘Apuia’ has been one of the standout players for NorthEast United for a couple of seasons. All of 20 years, the midfielder has already captained his ISL club and has earned rave reviews.
After scoring a terrific goal in NorthEast’s win over Kerala Blasters on Friday, his head coach Khalid Jamil said: “Apuia, I don’t have to say anything. One of the best players in India we have. I feel very happy to see his goal. He scored a wonderful goal and he is a talented player, no doubt.”
NorthEast United also have the fleet-footed winger Ninthoinganba Meetei from that 2017 team in their squad. Kerala Blasters have Rahul KP — fast emerging as one of the most promising Indian wingers — who has scored three goals this season and Jeakson Singh, an integral part of the club’s midfield for two seasons.
Amarjit Singh impressed at Jamshedpur FC before moving to FC Goa. He has also made his national team debut. The energetic Suresh Singh Wangjam has quickly become a mainstay in the Bengaluru FC midfield, making 19 appearances this season.
Rahim Ali has scored two goals this season for Chennaiyin FC while Aniket Jadhav has made 14 appearances for Jamshedpur FC and scored a goal. Boris Singh has also found a new lease of life at Jamshedpur FC.
Hyderabad FC have benefitted from the subsequent batches of the Arrows project as well with Akash Mishra and Asish Rai impressing everyone with their terrific displays at left-back and right-back respectively.
“He [Akash] is very quiet, has a very good mentality. For me, he will be one of the best left-backs in India soon, of course he has to improve,” Hyderabad head coach Manuel Marquez said during the season.
They also have another bright Arrows product in Rohit Danu in their ranks. Expect him to make a mark next season.
ATK Mohun Bagan have Sumit Rathi, the Emerging Player of the 2019-20 ISL, Mumbai City have Vikram Pratap Singh, and East Bengal have Harmanpreet Singh, who eventually was preferred to the likes of Jeje Lalpekhlua and Balwant Singh.
All this point to a pleasant development: the ISL clubs are making a beeline for the Indian Arrows players — and it is clear why. They are the cream of India’s young footballers, moulded by the AIFF’s talent scouting system.