With presidential elections in the All India Football Federation (AIFF) this week, Indian football is poised for a fresh start following a brief suspension from the global game for violating FIFA’s principle of non-interference by third parties. Or is that it? Kalyan Chaubey is the main candidate on the ballot, as he won the support of most of the state associations. A former player, he is also a member of the BJP in Bengal. It appears then that India’s far-right ruling party is maneuvering a politician to succeed Praful Patel, a politician himself.
Patel should have stepped down as chairman of India’s top soccer body in 2020 after completing his third term, but with a court case over the AIFF’s constitution, he stayed on longer, leaving the organization in limbo. A member of the FIFA Council, Patel is a career politician and represents the Indian National Congress in Parliament.
For sixteen years he had sat on almost every Parliamentary Advisory Committee on Civil Aviation before becoming Minister for Civil Aviation in 2004. Patel, the reformer of the skies, saddled Air India, the national airline, with a debt of 160 billion of rupees, always treading a fine line between his political and commercial aspirations. His family’s wealth had been built on the bye [cigarettes] business, with the Patels owning a majority stake in the CeeJay Group.
In May, India’s Supreme Court removed Patel from the long-time presidency and appointed a committee of administrators (CoA) to run the federation on a day-to-day basis, amend the constitution and organize new elections, thus ending Patel’s presidency. . However, the CoA deviated from an agreed roadmap between FIFA and the AFC and Zurich decided to suspend India, the most ignominious legacy of the Patel era.
“During their tenure, the AIFF started many academies and focused on youth development, but they were unable to sustain it financially,” says Mihir Vasavda, sports journalist for The Indian Express. “The national team hit its lowest point in terms of rankings and performances, but it also rose to one of the best positions in its history. There was the U-17 World Cup, which led to a huge infrastructure push, but the focus of top down didn’t.” give great results. Women’s football was largely ignored during his tenure, and the last-minute push towards the end seems like mere consolation.”
That momentum will culminate in the staging of the India Under-17 Women’s World Cup in October. The hosts faced Brazil, Morocco and the United States in Group A, leaving them with almost no chance of advancing from the first round, but that is beside the point: the tournament should present India as a flourishing and ambitious footballing nation.
However, the 2017 U-17 Men’s World Cup proved that big tournaments and a top-down approach, despite media attention, do not work to promote Indian football. The three-week event was a sophism. At the grassroots level, the Indian game remains deeply underdeveloped, fragmented and disorganized.
“The reversal of that top-down approach over the last decade hasn’t seeped through,” says Indian football analyst Pradhyum Reddy. “It has been mainly at the top level of the league. The relegation-promotion [issue] it’s a convenient distraction. MLS and the A-League don’t have it. You need to invest more at the grassroots level.”
“The biggest problem has been the lack of matches, from the national team to the club level. If you don’t play, you’re not going to improve. It’s even worse on the women’s side of the game.”
Ultimately, Indian football did not develop sufficiently under Patel’s presidency. He has not closed the gap with the Asian powers. Other countries have made bigger strides, Vietnam being an obvious example. “India does not need dazzling tournaments, but needs to invest more in player and coach development, and create better facilities,” adds Vasavda. The new president of AIFF will have to do better.