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Ethical Dilemmas and Unethical Dispensation: The Story of Indian Football in 2021

Jaydeep Basu |
In Indian football, the banners of ethics and sportsmanship are only raised when it is needed to serve a particular purpose. The year 2021 was no different.
Indian football yearender 2021

Indian football had very little ups in 2021, with controversies -- some storm in tea cups -- creating a stir to keep fans engaged.

The current state of Indian football is like the Robert Southey poem: “No stir in the air, no stir in the sea/The ship was still as she could be…”. The only difference – Southey was a prominent figure in the romantic era; there is hardly anything romantic about Indian football at the moment.

Well, with very little to take note of on the pitch, there was a bit of stir in the air in domestic football recently when FC Goa coach Juan Ferrando walked over to ATK Mohun Bagan rather nonchalantly in the middle of the ongoing Indian Super League (ISL). It helped to create some excitement at last (however artificial it was) and even raised serious questions about “poaching” and “sense of sportsmanship.” The questions were posed by FC Goa president Akshay Tandon on social media. Obviously, he didn’t like the way the Goa side were left stranded in the middle of the season after ATK Mohun Bagan took their coach away immediately after dumping their long-time manager, Antonio Habas. 

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While expressing the club’s helplessness in stopping the Spanish coach from changing camp rather abruptly, the FC Goa top boss said: “Poaching our coaches, staff and players is fair game but I hope better sense and sportsmanship prevails in the future.” Almost at the same breath, Tandon added: “As long as the money gets deposited in our accounts, we do not have a choice in his (Ferrando’s) decision.

Does the FC Goa chief believe in what he said on Ferrando’s exit? Or he just fired a salvo in the air to keep the supporters happy? The second option looks likely – that the Goan side wasn’t prepared for such a situation is difficult to believe. On the day Ferrando joined FC Goa, he had a clause in the contract that clearly said the club was obliged to release him if compensated accordingly.

Ferrando only triggered the clause to get himself released for greener pastures; there was nothing to feel “Surprised and disappointed” as claimed by some bosses in the Goa outfit. The situation is simple. First, if FC Goa found the coach so indispensable, they wouldn’t have put the clause in the contract. They kept it, one suspects, with a faint hope of breaking a lucrative future deal. If this was the ultimate bargain in mind, then FC Goa emerged thoroughly successful. 

Reports said ATK Mohun Bagan paid a hefty amount to get Ferrando released. FC Goa, instead of trying to pose like a martyr, should admit they clinched a good business deal. To add to it, they should also stop serving sermons on ethics and sportsmanship. But then, why blame FC Goa alone? How many things in Indian football in 2021, happened as per ethics, sportsmanship or laid down rules?

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Even the national federation heading the sport in the country is clinging to power not exactly through ethical means. The move to save their seats could be backed by some legal jargon, but that’s not the way football is played. Having legally ended his tenure as the president of All India Football Federation (AIFF) in December 2020, Praful Patel is holding on to the power on the strength of a pending case in the Supreme Court that, strangely, has not come up for hearing even once in the last one year. As long the case is not settled, the AIFF has informed its members, fresh elections for office bearers cannot be held.

“Everybody in the federation has been taken for a ride,” said an AIFF member. “Patel is the first person in the history of the federation to hold on to the chair even after his term is over. The sports ministry, it seems, is hand in glove with the federation as it is yet to utter a word on the issue.

“So much so, the AIFF has not even conducted its annual general meeting this year, which is generally held in December. Over and above, they have now written to state associations to follow the FIFA guidelines on constitution. A self- declared ad-hoc committee now trying to enlighten us on rules. We feel like laughing,” the member added.

In Indian football, the banners of ethics and sportsmanship are only raised when it is needed to serve a particular purpose. The year 2021 was no different. Recently, Rajasthan United FC, the newly promoted side in the I-League, blamed the organisers as well as the rival teams of a lack of sportsmanship after they were found not having enough registered players to play the opening tie on December 27. The club did well to qualify for the I-League, but what stopped them from recruiting players before the cut-off date remains a mystery. Or, were they not too sure about the qualification and deliberately kept the recruitment on hold?

Rajasthan FC, in the end, appealed for sportsmanship of their opponents and rued: “….we can clearly see that Sportsman Spirit is only left to be discussed on social media and books but when it comes to the field, it’s a totally different ball game. Our opponents could have respected the matter and had the willingness to play this match on a later date. This is all about being in the right frame with dignity for being a big professional football club.” 

It’s too weak an attempt to attract sympathy. Everything in Indian football is now about cut-throat professionalism and it is proud to announce it at every step. With a few exceptions, of course. When it comes to the introduction of promotion and relegation in the country’s top league, the call for professionalism is ignored season after season. In this case, money gets the preference over merit. Always. It is branded the nation’s number one league with huge cash being pumped in, but a team like East Bengal can continue to be there despite raising a ragtag combination every season. The club’s only advantage is, they have a management with deep pockets – an ideal situation for the neo-professionalism of Indian football.

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