In the third week of October, news reports from Pakistan noted that the situation with the pandemic in the country had worsened, with the case count rising rapidly. There was a spike in deaths due to Covid-19 too.
A couple of days later, the official Twitter handle of the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) announced that in a bid to resume football activities for women, it has started a week-long national team camp in Lahore after seven years. Because of internal problems, PPF is now run by an ad-hoc committee, appointed by FIFA.
Across the border, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) held its virtual executive committee meeting around the same time. It was chaired by president Praful Patel, the first Indian to be elected in the all-powerful FIFA council.
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After the meeting, AIFF said no other tournament -- other than the Indian Super League (ISL), starting November 20, and the I-League, which is likely to start from January 9, 2021 -- could be held this season because of the ongoing pandemic. What the committee’s statement didn’t say in as many words, the media release broadly did.
“The Committee also felt that under current circumstances hosting the Hero Youth Leagues this season won’t be possible, and the Hero Youth Leagues and the Academy Accreditation procedure would kick-off once again from next season onwards.
“AIFF League Committee shall consider organising a U-20 League next season so that the boys who would have played U-18 league this year get the opportunity to showcase their performance in the U-20 League,” the media release further stated.
What the federation put out diplomatically, was made clear rather bluntly by an official, who attended the meeting. “Apart from the ISL and the I-League, it is difficult to imagine any other tournament being held this season.
“The youth leagues at the sub-junior, junior and elite level are unlikely to be played. A similar situation could be expected for sub-junior and junior nationals as well as the Santosh Trophy,” the official, who didn’t want to be named for obvious reasons, said.
“The same could be said about the women’s nationals at all levels. However, as far as I know, no decision has been taken on the IWL (Indian Women’s League).”
To be clear, this is not an attempt to draw comparisons between the federation on either side of the border. The AIFF has certainly done a commendable job in organising the I-League qualifiers in Kolkata in October, on a much smaller scale though. Till date, it remains the only federation to hold a sporting event in the country since the pandemic struck. To say it was done quite successfully won’t be an exaggeration.
The question is, then why stop at I-League only? Why not show the similar nerve and resolution for the age group leagues, especially the elite Under-18 youth league? It was important because unlike the Sub-junior and Junior, this particular group of Under-18 boys won’t receive another opportunity to prove their mettle in an age group meet.
A senior league committee member defended the decision. “To organise the I-League qualifier in Kolkata, we had to create the necessary bio-bubble, which was not only a tough task, but hugely expensive. To repeat it for the youth leagues it is rather difficult.
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“Firstly, to control the behavior of the juniors is never easy. In case of a serious health issue, all fingers will immediately be pointed out at the federation. Moreover, the rising expenses of creating a perfect bio-bubble is a headache, too. Each Covid-19 test through a trusted agency cost around Rs. 2,200. And each footballer is expected to be tested at least thrice. The financial burden could be heavy.”
There is another side of the story, too. Arup Das, the director of the highly respected Josh Academy in Delhi, feels a skeleton youth league even at a much smaller scale could have helped. “Academies all over the country are facing closure. The coaches have no job, players are sitting idle and could drift away from the game,” he feared.
Das says the only bright spot in this hour of gloom is that several local level youth meets are still being organised despite the pandemic and without any apparent help from the authorities. He himself has regularly been travelling to smaller towns in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab to help out the kids with equipment.
Well, even if youth level national meets are ruled out, the traditional national championships for the Santosh Trophy could have made the cut along with the I-League. The tournament, despite its importance, has been severely reduced over the years. And yet it is still considered the best place to spot fresh talent. The inter-state meet, as a rule, doesn’t allow the inclusion of foreign footballers. It offers an opportunity to unknown players from unexpected quarters to flourish on the national stage.
In case the Santosh Trophy is not played this season — something which looks imminent — it will be the second time in succession the prestigious senior national championship will stand abandoned. The final round of the 2019-20 was to be played in March, before Coronavirus played spoilsport.
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An AIFF official, however, begs to differ. “We had no intention to cancel the meet. But there is no host available. Letters were written to all state associations, but none of them showed any interest. By the policy of allotment, it could be held in Mizoram, but they probably are not ready,” he said.
Sources say the amount of money needed to hold the Santosh Trophy or the women’s national is also a big problem. Generally, around Rs. 1 crore is spent to organise a particular edition of a Santosh Trophy. This time, the budget may go up by several lakh because of Covid-19 protocols.
“In ISL, lots of Covid-19 related expenses are being shared by the franchises. It is not the same in other meets. From where do you think the federation will put in so much money?” an official asked.
Not that the AIFF is facing a hand-to-mouth existence though. Apart from having a rather healthy budget, it has also received the emergency FIFA grant. The world body has announced that all its 211 member associations will receive a $1 million grant “to protect and restart football” and can access interest free loans up to $5 million. Each member will also receive an additional $5,00,000 grant specially for women’s football.
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In this case, the state associations, too, cannot run away from their responsibilities. Each state body would receive a little over Rs. 9 lakh each as part of the FIFA grant. It remains to be seen how they utilise the money.
The most important aspect, however, has been revealed by an official. “Right from the month of March, several meets like the Super Cup, Santosh Trophy or Inter-continental Cup could not be organised because of the pandemic. Hence, our marketing partners, as per the agreement, have reduced the payments by close to Rs. 10 crore. It is certainly a blow to our normal budget,” he claimed.
The nation is going through its most difficult phase since Independence; football certainly is no different. The best, however, was said by an I-League club official. “Let’s consider it the neo-normal. The situation may not improve for a longer period. Does that mean we should sit idle and wait for the normalcy to be restored? It has to start, albeit slowly. To find out how the ball should start rolling is the job of the federation. That’s what they are for.”
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