Indian Football: FIFA Ban Lifted, Time to Fix the Problem
The ban exposed the malaise within the All India Football Federation
There is a general consensus even amongst the most apathetic sports fans that a lot more needs to change as far as Indian football is concerned, although the lifting of the ban by Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) is a good place to start. Still the 11-day shock international ban could not have highlighted better the need for more than just a cosmetic makeover. But will the All India Football Federation (AIFF) rise to the challenge?
Baichung Bhutia was one amongst a handful of voices who made himself heard in the immediate aftermath of the FIFA ban. The former footballer has brought greater focus on how running Indian football goes. But in a case of once bitten, twice shy, even moderate sports aficionados are wary of throwing their weight or passion behind a former footballer, as they are about proxy administrators and weighty politicians.
In what has become a familiar tale, even successful sports like cricket are not immune to bureaucratic bungling, nepotism, corruption and personal grudges. Where sportspersons bring great acclaim and applause, the reverse of the coin is always a controversial saga whether it is the Commonwealth Games, Indian football or even a highly revenue generating sport like cricket, undermining the road to glory.
To put a brief context to the current scenario, on August 15, the FIFA banned Indian football altogether, sending shockwaves across the country on its Indepence Day. The ban brought to the fore, the malaise within the AIFF, the body that handles football in the country.
The worst case scenario had been brought to life. That the football community including the national football team, its captain, Sunil Chhetri, were aware of the possibility of such a scenario only makes it pathetic. This could have easily been avoided, but bruised egos and vengeful players in the world of sports administration, brought to a halt all football related activities outside India.
Ironically, had it not been for the August 15 timing, resulting in a deliberate rousing of nationalist fervour, it could be safely said that such a vociferous though short lived reaction would not even have been evinced. Such has been the nature of sports in India. Unless medals are bought back, names of athletes are rarely common households. No attention is given to their struggles before they make it to stages such as the Commonwealth Games, though an opportunity for photo ops is never lost.
Where certain administrators wield unwholesome clout, trouble is bound to ensue. Word has it that Praful Patel, who has held ministerial posts in the government, did not take kindly to his forceful removal as the AIFF president. He allegedly used his influence to get Indian football in this perilous position.
The Committee of Administrators (CoA) appointed by the Supreme Court came under the FIFA scanner and despite FIFA's communication with the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, the ban was actioned. In immediate jeopardy were club teams that had travelled abroad to take advantage of pre-season training in places like the United Kingdom, and India being stripped as hosts of the FIFA under-17 Women's World Cup set to take place in October.
It is these kinds of issues that have held back the development of sports in a country whose accolades and medals do no justice to its population size. It took the Supreme Court disbanding the CoA, it had appointed, for FIFA to reverse its decision. Although the ban was for only 11 days, the damage had been done.
Stranded teams who had painstakingly prepared for months had to figure out their return tickets, and it was left to the Supreme Court to put the house back in order. Other teams like the Gokulam Kerala FC team, that won the women's league, and were scheduled to play an AFC club champion event in Uzbekistan found themselves humiliatingly returning from Tashkent for no fault of theirs, rightfully demanding redressal for their anguish.
India nearly found itself with cancelled friendly matches against Singapore and Vietnam in preparation for the Asian Cup next year. These fortunately came back to the table after the 11 day ordeal.
The notion that sportspersons make the best administrators has taken a significant dent in the Indian context in the past year. Old feuds rarely go away, egos can be petty and when the stakes are high, settling grudges becomes a case of who holds the upper hand in the boardroom.
There are lessons to be learnt from cricket, particularly when it comes to public image. It is hard to hoodwink even the most ignorant of cricket fans that the game being played on the ground is nothing compared to the boardroom battles. These boardroom battles have come into prominence in the aftermath of the avaricious building of the empire that is the Indian Premier League (IPL).
A great cheer went up when Sourav Ganguly threw his hat into the ring, becoming an influential figure at the Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB) in the footsteps of Jagmohan Dalmiya. But recent developments since his ascension as the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) chairman, the beneficiary of the troubles as well as influence of N. Srinivasan, and the subsequent violation of several reformative measures suggested by the Lodha Committee that oversaw a revamp of the BCCI have shown that power has the ability to shape and perhaps even corrupt even the most astute of cricketing minds.
The fallout with Virat Kohli was just one public, but downright embarrassing, situation involving Ganguly whose nickname "Dada" took on a new meaning. The dirty laundry was aired publicly, and some within the BCCI reported about how Ganguly had to be stopped more than once from impetuously making the battle even more degrading for himself and the board. India lost only the opportunity to give Kohli his due as captain even on the way out but also, made apparent that while the BCCI might have changed robes, it still operated under the old guard.
Although Kohli might have been less popular as a captain than a player, all that the board shenanigans did by favouring one player over the other, was to draw unusual empathy for the contemporary batsman who had lost his prolific form in recent months.
Still the manner in which Kohli was pushed into resigning as the captain of the Indian team did the intended work of painting Kohli in a poorer light. More importantly, it ended up showing that the board comprising of proxy players and sons/brothers of politicians are waiting to swoop in. This was at a time when someone of the stature of Ganguly was blind to the idea that his petty settlement with Kohli could not only fashion his downfall with the board, in the future as they wait to break down the door once more. It also created an unwanted precedent that sportspersons do not make the most astute administrators when such fallouts are par for the course.
Bhutia will have to walk a fine line, win or lose a battle, as the AIFF president or as a passionate former footballer who has played for pride. This telling international shame on India, albeit over a span of eleven days, will have ripple effects into future events and will only have an added element of pressure not only on the administrators but also, the sportspersons who know it could all be taken away from them, and not for want of effort on their part.
Ironically what this chaos has done is draw even greater attention and pressure on the organisers under the radar of the AIFF and AFC to pull off the FIFA Under-17 Women's World Cup without a hitch. Easier said than done.
While Bhutia has promised substantial financial support, if elected, for the development of youth programmes and development leagues, his ultimate goal as should be India's would be for India to claim a berth in the football World Cup on the merit of the team and not by virtue of winning hosting rights, which is what the next month's World Cup is showcasing rather tellingly.
While filing his nomination, the first Indian footballer to have represented India in 100 matches, and hoped to restore glory of Indian football from the 1950's with a World Cup to boot stated, "I think that FIFA suspending the AIFF was a bit of a harsh decision, but at the same time it has also given an opportunity to get the system right and make sure that all the stakeholders work and get the right people for the betterment of football and take it further."
After this ignominy, win or lose for Bhutia, it will be an uphill climb for Indian football one way or the other.