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Kerala Blasters, Mumbai City among several ISL clubs hesitant to release players for U-23 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers

Ivan Vukomanovic, left, Des Buckingham, centre, and Carles Cuadrat will have a depleted squad in between key games if their teams, Kerala Blasters, Mumbai City FC and East Bengal, release players for the national camp.

Ivan Vukomanovic, left, Des Buckingham, centre, and Carles Cuadrat will have a depleted squad in between key games if their teams, Kerala Blasters, Mumbai City FC and East Bengal, release players for the national camp.
| Photo Credit: Focus sports

Indian football has reached a crossroad it had come to, 14 years ago, before the Nehru Cup 2009, when first-division (then I-League) clubs had refused to release players for National Camp.

This time, the clubs are from Indian Super League and the competitions at hand are the U-23 AFC Asian Cup 2024 qualifiers.

According to sources, a few ISL clubs, with East Bengal, Mumbai City FC and Kerala Blasters being three of them, have written to the All India Football Federation, requesting to reconsider the plea to release players (for the national camp).

“We have not received any letter from ISL clubs regarding Asian Games. Some clubs have written to us regarding the release of players for the U-23 Asian Cup qualifiers,” Shaji Prabhakaran, the Secretary General of AIFF told Sportstar.

“We understand their compulsions but important is to come together and look at the larger picture to elevate our football through our collective effort and take this as ‘Project Indian football.’”

The U-23 Asian Cup qualifiers will be played in Dalian, China between September 6-12, with the preparatory camp scheduled in Bhubaneswar from August 12.

With the Durand Cup scheduled between July 20 and August 20, and the AFC Cup qualifying rounds on August 16 and 22, releasing players for the national camp would mean allowing the depletion of the squad between big-ticket domestic matches.

Probables list for U-23 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers

Goalkeepers: Sachin Suresh (KBFC), Hrithik Tiwari, Prabhsukhan Singh Gill, Arsh Anwer Shaikh

Defenders: Narender Gahlot, Hormipam Ruivah, Bikash Yumnam, Halen Nongtdu, Sanjeev Stalin, Sumit Rathi, Jitendra Singh, Abdul Rabeeh

Midfielders: Thoiba Singh Moirangthem, Lalrinliana Hnamte, Jiteshwor Singh Yumkhaibam, Ayush Dev Chhetri, Vibin Mohanan, Brison Deuben Fernandes, Amarjit Singh Kiyam

Forwards: Sourav K, Vikram Partap Singh, Parthib Gogoi, Rohit Danu, Ninthoinganba Meetei Khumanthem, Gurkirat Singh, Ayush Chhikara, Sivasakthi Narayanan, Suhail Ahmad Bhat

Can clubs stop players from playing for the national team?

Domestic football clubs around the world are mandated to release players for the National Team in the FIFA international window. However, both the Asian Games and the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers are outside those windows, putting the onus on the clubs to release them.

Mumbai City FC is starting its first team in the Durand Cup for the second time in a row and will lock horns against Mohammedan SC on August 5. It will then play in the AFC Champions League next month.

Among the list of 28 players for the preparatory camp Asian Cup qualifiers, five are from Mumbai City, three are from Kerala Blasters and two are from East Bengal.

“We have always been supportive of the national teams and of course, we release players for the FIFA windows but that is as much as I can say at the moment,” Des Buckingham, MCFC’s head coach said.

Hyderabad FC and Bengaluru FC were not available for comment on the issue.

The AIFF General Secretary told Sportstar that the Federation is planning for a meeting with the respective clubs at the earliest to solve the issue.

“We are looking for a middle ground and will hold discussions with the club(s) as soon as possible. The clubs have been very co-operative so far,” he said.

“Football in India will grow only if the national team gets more successful. At the moment, we are going through a transition period. We want to make the national team more competitive and to improve our competitiveness, we shouldn’t be missing any opportunities to expose our players and team,” he added.

The U-23 AFC Asian Cup 2024, to be played in Qatar, acts as the qualifying tournament for the Paris 2024 Olympics, providing India with a chance to play in the quadrennial Games for the first time since 1960.

Meanwhile, Igor Stimac, head coach of the senior National team, took to social media requesting the ISL clubs to release players for the under-23 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers and the Asian Games.

“I urge all clubs to continue supporting our National team, especially in the upcoming months packed with some major tournaments. I can assure you that our National teams will make sure to validate your support with good performances. Let’s take our nation to the pinnacle of football,” he tweeted.

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