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Silent, Inert or Watchful? What is the AIFF’s Game Plan to Address the Elephant in the I-League Room?

Live sporting action has returned to India. The action though hasn’t been restricted to the field at the I-League qualifiers in Kolkata. Over the past few days a club, a club owner, a coach have been involved in an unsavoury incident with allegations of match fixing, information leaking and defamation lawsuits being thrown around like candy. In all this, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has remained silent. Mute observers of a game they are supposed to govern in the country.
Mohammedan Sporting Club controversy during I-League qualifiers

Action from the Mohammedan Sporting Club vs Garhwal FC I-League Qualifiers match in Kolkata.

There are many things in Indian football which have now become so intrinsically part of the system that questioning them borders on absurdity. Regardless of those things wrong and questionable or inappropriate and eyebrow raising, their continued presence has trivialised them. They don’t raise red flags, they don’t get reactions from fans, nor do they get acted upon by the governing body. It is essential, though, to ensure not everything goes down this way. Some things are more dangerous than others.

One of them is match fixing, a big sin, the bane that afflicts all sports. And now in the realm of Indian football, allegations of match fixing should be cause for alarm. Except barely anyone in the Indian football establishment has batted an eyelid at it. Call it a new low in absurdity, or a stretching of the ineptitude envelope, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has been eerily mum about the inglorious goings on around the I-League qualifiers being staged in Kolkata. 

Disappointingly, Indian football’s — Indian sports’ restart in fact — has been dragged into a nasty affair, a stinky mix of mudslinging, sacking, alleged match fixing involving Mohammedan Sporting Club and Ranjit Bajaj, the man who consistently finds himself in the middle of anything remotely controversial in Indian football.

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Police complaints have been filed, defamation cases are being mulled, while leaked Whatsapp chats are being touted as proof of wrongdoing by Mohammedan’s former coach Yan Law. According to publicly released statements by the club officials, Law has close ties with Bajaj, and was allegedly leaking crucial team information to the Minerva Academy owner, who, for some strange reason (He says he was there for trials for Delhi FC) happened to be staying at the same hotel in Kolkata where the bio bubble was set up for the teams. 

An insidious relationship — between Law and Bajaj — has been implied by the club. The  word match fixing was thrown about callously in newspaper reports and soon enough a resignation arrived from the coach, and a sack order came from the club. Each party seemed desperate to attain higher ground in the affair, PR more important than addressing the issue at hand — a massive communication breakdown at all ends perhaps? Things are unravelling as we speak. And all of this is in the midst of a mini tournament to decide which team will get promoted to the I-League next season. The AIFF, whose tournament it is and whose duty it is to ensure football is run smoothly, fairly and sans corruption in the country, has been sitting on the fence on the issue ever since the news broke through on Saturday.

The AIFF seems to have forgotten that the tournament is an I-League qualifier and not the Indian Super League (ISL). In the ISL, the federation, perhaps, need not get involved when things go haywire. They possibly can’t, even if they wanted to. East Bengal’s inclusion in the ISL, and the zero role or inkling the federation had in it, is ample proof of that, while the general direction in which football is heading the country perfectly symbolises the shackles as well as the symbolic toothless grin with which the AIFF — and its officials — postures about these days.

The federation has gotten used to a certain level of inertness thanks to, as the purists keep saying, selling of the game’s soul to a private enterprise. The inertness has entrenched itself in its functioning so much that it fails to act, respond, or even clear its stance on an important issue such as this — in a very important tournament, one that has restarted competitive sport in India. 

It is the tournament organisers’ — in this case it also happens to be the national federation — prerogative and duty to ensure the competition is run upholding the larger spirit and rules of the game, sans any scope for corruption or foul play. It is all the more important now since live sport has been rare this year thanks to the pandemic, starving all of us of action, and the bookies and match fixers scope to make money. Also, history has shown us that it is not the big tournaments but the smaller, lower division ones that attract fixers the most as things could be staged under the radar. FIFA has been trying to fight this and the AIFF, as a member, is expected to be an active partner in that war. Considering all these factors, the federation should be proactive while organising tournaments to ensure systems are in place to ensure foul play does not take place. 

It is important to clarify right here that nothing has been proven. Allegations have been thrown and countered. At the same time, if things are out in the open, even if they are allegations, the AIFF has the responsibility, and the mandate too, to step in and investigate. Release a statement at the very least. That’s the least they could do.  

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They have instead chosen to play the role of a mute spectator. When Newsclick contacted officials at the AIFF, they chose to hide behind the silliest of justifications: no one has sent an official request to them to intervene.

“Of course we have taken note of the incident that has happened in Kolkata and we are keeping an eye as well. However, we cannot act until we receive a request from the parties or one of them for intervention. It is their club's internal matter and we will not get involved until we are asked to," an official who wished not to be named said.

Suo Motu is the word, sir! The AIFF, as the governing body of the sport in the country, could and should take suo motu action in this case since the incident is bringing not just their tournament but the whole sport into disrepute. 

A couple of years back, there were incidents of match fixing approaches made to players of Minerva Punjab (now Punjab FC). Bajaj was the owner of the club at the time and seven of his players were reportedly approached by a bookie. They reported the incident and the AIFF took cognizance too. The investigation was handed over to the CBI, and has subsequently gone cold, a cause of concern in itself. Did the federation follow up on that investigation, or are they awaiting an invite or official communique from someone to intervene, much like the ongoing case?

"The CBI investigation is still on in that regard. Since it involves global betting syndicates with big players in the fixing nexus, that would take time," the official said.

There you go. That case is under investigation and an international nexus was involved in the incident in Indian football. Ample reason for the AIFF to be proactive even if allegations of fixing surface through the course of tournaments. 

Again, to be clear, there is no insinuation that match fixing or leaking of information has actually happened. Investigative agencies will look into that matter and things will eventually come out. The AIFF’s integrity officer should closely be involved with the authorities in that investigation though. That’s his job after all. 

As far as the incidents in Kolkata are concerned, it could well be a case of an internal club issue taking a nasty turn and going out of control. We are talking about Mohammedan Sporting after all. A club which has had governance issues, internal strife, and is known to sack coaches at whim. In this case a point of complaint has been that the coach picked the starting XI unilaterally. Which begs the question, what is the coach’s job for? If there has been irresponsible action from the club officials then they should be hauled up for their behaviour. It is after all a problem within the AIFF’s ambit, and one they need to address urgently — ensuring clubs adhere to good governance practices is mandated by FIFA. 

Inaction should never be confused with patient watchfulness. One way or another the AIFF should need to, at the very least, address the incidents at play in Kolkata. A simple statement will go a long way in cleaning up the rumour mill. There are reputations and careers at stake here. Playing the ostrich game now will bring down one of the last standing values in Indian football — integrity on the playing field!

(With inputs from Jaydeep Basu)

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