Japanese Arata Izumi has become the first foreign national to be selected for the Indian football team.
The Pune FC midfielder, who had given up his Japanese citizenship and got his Indian passport in August, found a place in the 23-member India squad selected by Ducth coach Wim Koevermans for the international friendly against Palestine in Kochi slated for February 6. Arata was also registered as an Indian player in the Durand Cup last year.
Born to an Indian father and Japanese mother, Arata had an Indian birth certificate, but he became a Japanese citizen after his parents separated.
Arata first came to India as East Bengal's foreign recruit and then moved to Mahindra United. Former Mahindra coach Derek Pereira took the Japanese along with him when he joined Pune FC. In the past he had played for Singapore club Albirex Nagata and then for Mitsubishi Migushima.
Arata has taken up an Indian name of Neelkanth Khambholja and has also got married to an Indian girl, Shweta Manerikar.
The All India Football Federation (AIFF) in the past had made attempts to include Indian origin footballers like former Sunderland striker Michael Chopra in the national team but failed to do so. A government order in 2010 ruled that only Indian passport holders can represent the country.
Meanwhile, Koevermans, under whom India had won the Nehru Cup in September, maintained it is a very important match for India.
"We need to assess ourselves. We need more such matches," he said.
India captain Sunil Chhetri said, "Unless you play international friendlies you cannot gauge where you stand. We stay grateful to AIFF for arranging the match. The passion for the sport in the Kerala stays unparalleled and we expect a full house cheering for us against Palestine."