As the fourth season of the Indian Super League begins next week, players and coaches gear up for a longer version of the tournament.

This time, the ISL has come with its own share of changes compared to the past three seasons. From being a two-and-a-half-month long tournament, it has become an almost five-month contest on India’s footballing calendar.

The league has also done away with the mandatory marquee player rule this season. Another very important change is the increase in number of Indian players on the pitch per team.

This season, the ISL has capped the maximum number of foreign players in the playing XI from six to five. This means that the minimum number of Indian players on the pitch will have to be six. The rule will make Indian players more relevant now and with the ISL’s aim of elevating Indian football, the change is a step in the right direction.

However, this change comes at a time when the Indian players have improved. With the national squad breaking into the top-100, ISL teams are banking on their Indian players to get the job done this time around.

“I am happy with the standard of the Indian players in the team,” said FC Goa coach Sergio Lobera. “They are willing to imbibe what is taught to them. I won’t single out anyone. Three of them have benefited from playing with the national team.”

Onus on Indian players

With each team set to play a total of 18 games, the Indian players will have to show their skills. With the cap on foreign players in the squad down to eight from 11, coaches know that they will have to focus on their home-grown players.

“The idea is to develop our young players by putting them on the field for maximum number of time,” said John Gregory, Chennaiyin FC head coach. “Indian players, in particular, if they have any common sense, will give it a good shot.

“The way ISL has developed over the last three seasons offers a great opportunity for domestic players to show they are more than capable of playing in it. We have a lot of young boys who are banging the first team door and some of them will get a chance and play a lot of minutes this year.”

FC Pune City striker Kean Lewis said that the rule change has its ups and downs. “We have a young team, which works in our advantage if they are motivated and eager to perform, which they are,” he said. “On the downside, you could say that there is not enough experience in the squad and depth but we are four to five senior players that are working on sharing our experience including foreigners who have played in the ISL and top levels abroad.”

‘Indians keen to learn’

According to FC Pune City coach Ranko Popvic, the role of the foreign players would now be to guide the young Indian talent given their rich experience. “Look, if you want to be a team, for me, all players are Indian players because we are an Indian football club,” he said. “The foreign players are very experienced and they come here to take the pressure of young players. People here want to learn and they have big space to improve.”

The addition of an Indian player in the XI means the local goalkeepers are likely to get more playing time, as is evident from the draft strategy employed by most teams. Chennaiyin FC custodian Karanjit Singh feels the new rule would help many Indians.

“When you share the dressing room with world-class players and World Cup winners, and train with them, then you get to learn a lot and also gain a lot of confidence,” he said. “You learn a lot from them. Look at the national squad after the ISL came in. The team has improved and a lot of youngsters have also made the squad.”