Sunil Chhetri recently sparked a rigorous debate over the creation of a reserve league in Indian football.
“India needs a strong reserves league and it is doable. It has to run with the main league."
Say, FC Goa travel to play Bengaluru, they should bring 28 players instead of 20. Those who don’t play the ISL game should play the reserves game the next day.
Those players will get competitive games and when one of them, such as Manvir Singh, joins the India camp, he would be way more confident than he is now.
Manvir is a top player but he is either played out of position or gets a handful of games because FC Goa wouldn’t play him over Coro (Ferran Corominas)”, said Chhetri.
Chhetri’s idea of a reserve league is inherently positive. It would provide young and aspiring players with a more streamlined method of development and some stability when it comes to receiving game time.
Take someone like Narender Gehlot for example. The 18-year-old centre-back is a regular in the Indian national team set-up but has not played a single minute for Jamshedpur FC in the ongoing season. And that’s the case with most young upcoming local players.
The number of foreigners in domestic competitions has exacerbated the problem and that is partly responsible for young local players not getting enough minutes.
The revival of the Indian Arrows project was one of the best steps taken by the All India Football Federation. Consistent game time has allowed young players from the FIFA U17 World Cup team to develop and break into the senior national side.
However, crops of Arrows boys are finding it difficult to find regular game time at their respective I-League and ISL clubs this season.
It is vital that players between the key development ages of 17 and 22 have somewhere to play and a reserve league is a perfect destination to facilitate their improvement.
Some steps have been made in the right direction. The revival of the Durand Cup and allowing ISL reserve teams to play in the I-league second division would see players from the reserve sides gain competitive minutes on the pitch. But is it enough?
I-league second division and other competitions don’t provide enough game-time and exposure for the reserve sides and therefore it is crucial the structure of the game is fixed.
Funding youth development and building structures underneath the first division where all the youth prospects from the reserve sides could play every week should be the objective of AIFF.
If the All India Football Federation and FDSL are serious about improving the standard of the national team and the pool of homegrown talent, the introduction of a reserve division is a practical and relatively modest solution.