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The Many Ignominious Firsts in Indian Football by AIFF’s Accidental President Praful Patel

While Indian football has suffered many lows, the disrepute it is forced to endure after the Supreme Court appointed a Committee of Administrators (CoA) in the All India Football Federation (AIFF) to put an end to Praful Patel’s 14-year tenure as its president, is something unprecedented, and the damage irreparable.
Praful Patel and Supreme Court CoA order

Praful Patel achieved a lot through football -- he was the first Indian to be made the AFC vice president and was elected a member of the FIFA council, the world football’s highest decision-making body. Once again, the Mumbai businessman-turned-politician-turned-football-administrator became the first Indian to be in the prestigious committee.

In his nearly 14 years stay as the president of the All India Football Federation (last 16 months of which has been without a mandate, if an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court by the Union Sports Ministry is to be believed), Praful Patel achieved many firsts for Indian football. The Supreme Court order to appoint a Committee of Administrators (CoA) in the AIFF during his tenure would definitely top the list.

Indian football is not taken too seriously even at the middle rung in the international arena. Yet, it has a fan following that could give cricket a run for their money in several parts of the country. Even 10 years ago, Indian football had the busiest domestic schedule, keenly followed by the lovers of the game. It all happened because it was a decently organised sport, despite limited cash flow.

Patel managed to shatter that. The Supreme Court order has proved one thing beyond doubt -- the current administrators are no more capable of running it in a manner it should be; the court felt a retired judge, a retired civil servant and a former footballer would be able to do a better job than Patel and his committee.

The ignominy could have been avoided easily. To put it bluntly, what brought the situation to now, when the national federation has to be run by court-appointed administrators for the first time in its 85-year-old history, is the uncontrolled greed of Patel and his committee. They tried to hang on to power even after their terms were over. Indian football had to pay dearly for it.

Also Read | Supreme Court Appoints Three-Member Committee to Manage Affairs of All India Football Federation

There was no need to appoint the CoA had the AIFF conducted its elections when it was due in December 2020. Its arguments that holding elections would amount to “contempt of court” was not only childish and absurd, but had a definite hidden agenda. It helped Patel to cling on to power beyond 12 years and three terms as specified by the National Sports Code, on which AIFF is a signatory. It did huge damage to the prestige of the game. Indian football was widely projected in the most negative fashion -- it turned worse as the federation tried to cover it up with juvenile efforts.

Not holding elections in time is not the only issue where the current committee, headed by Patel, fell embarrassingly short. It began right from the day Patel assumed power. Under him, Indian football, widely known as the poor man’s game, was suddenly turned into an elite discipline with almost a “no-entry board” put up for those who played and managed the game at the top level till then. In his tenure, the transformation from the I-League to the Indian Super League (ISL) as the country’s top league came with a couldn’t care less attitude backed by a virtual contempt for all other stakeholders.  

On July 9, 2009, the AIFF held a meeting of its executive committee in a five-star facility in central Delhi. On that fateful afternoon, the AIFF, led by Patel, took a decision that had far-reaching implications in Indian football. From a people’s game, it suddenly was reduced to a pocket borough of a privately owned organisation.

Based on the Master Right Agreement (MRA) the AIFF signed with its marketing partners in 2010, the contents of which is still not known even to majority of the federation members, Patel’s men decided to promote the privately run annual franchise-based league as country’s National League giving it’s champions the sole rights of representing India in the Asian Champions League (ACL). 

To please its marketing partners, Patel and the AIFF had moved far beyond the MRA. The agreement never mentioned the ACL spot would go to the franchise-based league. The AIFF relented immediately when it was allegedly threatened with non-payment of money. The MRA had no specific clause on the promotion-relegation system. Yet, the AIFF readily agreed to a closed league till the 2022-23 season despite knowing it would do huge injustice to the rest of the clubs in the country. No AIFF chief in history had ever dealt with the game’s future in the country so casually for the benefit of an elite group of people like Patel did.

It doesn’t end here. Patel was labelled the “accidental president” after he found himself at the top of the AIFF when the then president Priyaranjan Dasmunshi fell ill. But to his credit, Patel, in December 2010, roped in one reputed company as marketing partners with a financial deal that left every football lover in the country in complete awe. With the marketing partners giving a large amount of money every year, there were high hopes. Football was expected to grow with a flood of activities. 

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Instead, things dried up, especially at the senior level. The Indian football season has now become a one-tournament wonder; the traditional tournaments have mostly stopped across the country for different reasons and have not been replaced with new ones. There was a time when Indian football’s domestic season used to be the country’s busiest sporting schedule. Sometimes top players used to end up playing 60-70 matches in a season that once prompted the AIFF to put a bar on the number of matches a top footballer can play in a season.

Now, things are different. Even the national team players don’t play more than 25-30 matches in a season because there is hardly a tournament played beyond the premier league. Things have come to such a pass that not one good knock-out tournament is available for top clubs. The AIFF stopped the Federation Cup to start the Super Cup. It has become highly irregular, only two editions have been played since it started in 2018.

The list could be unending and depressing too. Under Patel, India hosted the under-17 World Cup for the first time with much fanfare though it hardly brought any improvement in India’s international age group captain. Patel was again chiefly instrumental in the AFC awarding India the rights to host the Asian women’s championships for the first time. India’s campaign ended in disaster as a large number of girls in the squad were down with Covid-19 after the first match and the team had to be withdrawn. Patel promised to initiate an inquiry, which never took place.

On the personal front, Patel achieved a lot through football. He is the first Indian to be made the AFC vice president in recent times. He went one step further when he was elected a member of the FIFA council, the world football’s highest decision-making body. Once again, the Mumbai businessman-turned-politician-turned-football-administrator became the first Indian to be in the prestigious committee.

Also Read | India, Set to Host FIFA Under-17 Women’s World Cup, Yet to Stage U-17 Nationals

Some AIFF members say Patel getting into the FIFA council was expected to be the high point in Indian football but turned out to be the other way round.

“We suspect that Patel’s eagerness to stay in the FIFA council was the main reason why he wanted to continue in the AIFF even after his term was over. He probably wanted to be re-elected in the FIFA council in 2023,” said a member. Patel, however, said he always wanted to leave the AIFF as soon as possible. That he couldn’t conduct elections because it would have been like going against the apex court.

Well, the Supreme Court hearing on May 18, Wednesday, proved Patel and his committee’s apprehension wrong. The apex court didn’t accolade the stand taken by the AIFF; instead, it appointed a three-member committee of administrators and asked it to start preparations for elections. 

His elevation to the top post was accidental. The Supreme Court didn’t exactly make his exit glorious. Another first for a president of the AIFF.

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