The Asian Football Confederation's (AFC) club tournaments allow its participants to field a maximum of four foreign players in a matchday squad and it is a mandatory requirement that at least one of those four has to be an Asian footballer (from AFC member nations).
While most leagues in Asia follow the 3+1 rule, there are some countries who have become exceptions to this guideline. The likes of Japan, Australia and the Arab countries couldn't care less about the reduced number of local players playing at clubs due to the lack of strict regulation on foreign players. They follow the AFC rules for its tournaments of course, but otherwise, it's a free choice for clubs and it has not, so far, affected the performance of their respective national teams. But they have to be considered as exceptions.
There are two major reasons for considering these Asian countries as exceptions. The first one is wealth and the second one is exposure.
Consider a country like Japan. 16 footballers from the last 23-man squad called up for the country's 2022 World Cup qualifiers in November are playing abroad. Japan has been a hotbed for football talent for several years and they are currently considered as one of the powerhouses in the AFC region.
Not only have international superstars graced the J League, but Japanese players have also been plying their trade in the top European leagues for decades. Yasuhiko Okudera, the first Japanese footballer to play in a foreign land when he signed for FC Koln in 1977, will be proud.
Socceroos can also be given the same benefit of the doubt. They have had plenty of exposure and have benefitted from the same. Tim Cahill, one of the most popular footballers from the country, made his name in the Premier League with Everton and his success helped popularise the sport in the country. There have been other players like Brett Emerton, Aaron Mooy, Harry Kewell etc whose foreign stints have captured the imagination of the Australian public.
What about the Arab countries, then? Saudi Arabia, one of the richest nations in the world with a higher GDP per capita than India, (same applies to Qatar and UAE), treats football as the country's go-to sport, has enough infrastructure and home-grown players to build a good national team. They have been able to spend quite a lot of cash to bring international stars to play in their league and the football federation, only last year, recruited eight goalkeeping coaches from Croatia for all their teams, right from the U-10 age category to the senior squad.
Interestingly, nine Saudi players were lent to Spanish teams ahead of the 2018 World Cup as part of a multiyear marketing and licensing deal in order to develop and promote the game in the country.
The Spanish clubs got the players for free and paid them only the league’s mandated minimum wage. Saudi Arabia paid the rest of their salaries.
Having invested a lot on national team development, 2022 World Cup hosts falls into the same category well - they are an exception because they have money to spend.
Al Duhail signed former Juventus forward Mario Mandzukic for a salary of over $9 million. They had Jose Mourinho's former assistant Rui Faria as their coach at that time (he left the job a month later). Moreover, their dual citizenship regulations allow them to make use of foreign-born talents and as a result, the AFC Asian Cup defending champions have a lot on non-Qatari born footballers in their national team squad.
They also had the financial capability to help build a world class academy like Aspire Academy and used their expertise to keep a bunch of quality youngsters together, send them on loan to Belgian club Eupen (incidentally owned by Aspire), and ensure they reached their potential.
The UAE is also another country with good infrastructure and a boatload of cash in their hands. UAE Pro League clubs can sign as many foreign players as they want to but only four players are allowed on the field. Some clubs have had more than 10 foreigners in their squad, earning high wages (from an Indian perspective) when only four can be played. What does that indicate? That they're crazy rich!
A strict foreign player policy is the way forward for India and the Indian FA should not be pointing to the policies of the countries mentioned above as an excuse if they choose to stick to the current format.