*Written by Anisha Chatterjee
FIFA’s unanimous decision to ban the All India Football Federation (AIFF) with immediate effect less than 2 months before the U-17 Women’s World Cup came as a disappointment, but no shock. FIFA stated that this decision had been taken due to the “undue influence of third parties” and stated that the suspension would be lifted to set up a committee of administrators to temporarily assume the powers of AIFF.
The AIFF elections were supposed to be held in December 2020 by council member Praful Patel but have been constantly delayed due to a stalemate over Constitutional amendments. However, according to FIFA statutes, it is compulsory for member federations to be free from political or legal interference of any kind from their countries. FIFA have previously suspended three other member federations for similar reasons, so it was no surprise that AIFF was next.
HISTORY OF THE FIFA-AIFF DISPUTE
The problems with the AIFF go back many years. The federation had not had a new president in over 13 years, with president Praful Patel serving 3 terms of 4 years each (ending in 2020). According to the rules laid down by the National Sports Code, he was not eligible to stand again. Thus, a new president needed to be elected immediately.
On 18th May, the Supreme Court intervened, and decided to strip the AIFF of its powers. They elected a 3-member committee comprising of former Supreme Court Judge AR Dave, former Indian Men’s Team Captain Bhaskar Ganguly and former Chief Election Commissioner SY Qureshi. This looked like a good decision by the apex court. The fans were happy that Praful Patel had left, and been replaced by three highly qualified Individuals. The future of Indian Football seemed to be in safe hands. However, this joy was short-lived.
With the new 3-member committee leading football in this country, FIFA’s message to them was clear: new elections need to be held, and a new constitution needs to be made and presented to FIFA and AFC (Asian Football Federation). This was where the problems began…
The Committee of Administrators (CoA) formed an advisory council with 12 people, with entrepreneur Ranjit Bajaj as the chairman. This team was created with the aim of assisting the CoA in running the day-to-day activities of the All India Football Federation. This was not well-accepted within the AIFF, as many members believed that the appointment of such an external committee would interfere with the working of the federation, and would be in violation of FIFA statutes.
The problems do not end there. On the day Ranjit Bajaj was announced as the chairman of the 12-member council, the secretary of AIFF, Mr. Kushal Das resigned from his position stating “health reasons”. However, it must be noted that Mr Bajaj had previously accused Mr. Das of sexual harassment of AIFF employees and corruption, both of which he has denied. So it was no surprise to see that the latter did not wish to work with the former. However, this advisory committee was almost immediately rejected by a FIFA-AFC joint delegation. They believed that this committee interfered with federation affairs and asked for them to get disbanded.
While the threat of getting banned was always there, the situation never seemed to materialise.
The FIFA-AFC delegation was led by AFC General Secretary Datuk Seri Windsor John and consists of three others, namely deputy general secretary Vahid Kardany, senior Manager of Central Asia Unit Yogesh Desai, and head of South-Asia unit Purushottam Kattel. They had met with the CoA to discuss all the issues, and initially everything was going well. One of the main takeaways from their first round of meetings was that the election must take place before September, so that the new president could take responsibility for the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, scheduled to kick off in October. Both parties were also willing to discuss their points of disagreement and work towards finding a common solution. Everything seemed to be going well.
The CoA were doing their job and setting up meetings and deciding on the new elections. Everything seemed on track for the U17 World Cup till the CoA got word that Mr. Praful Patel was interfering with the decision of the court. The CoA and AIFF moved to the Supreme Court and asked for strict action against Mr. Patel for contempt of court. They filed a petition with enclosed evidence which proved that Mr. Patel, although no longer the president of AIFF, had continued to abuse his position as a FIFA Council Member and had meetings with multiple member associations around the country to undermine the decision of the Supreme Court. He had also allegedly gotten various footballers involved.
The CoA stated that the government were “misled by the state associations, as have FIFA-AFC who are ignorant of the duplicitous role being played by Mr. Patel”. They were not happy with the former president’s continued involvement in the federation, and his meetings with the secretaries of other football associations all around the country, all of whom believed that the order of the Supreme Court required changes.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR INDIAN FOOTBALL?
As of 16th August 2022, the AIFF has been suspended due to corruption and undue influence by third parties. India has lost their rights to host the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup with less than 2 months to go.
This suspension comes as a huge blow for the Indian National Team who can no longer play against other countries. Both Men’s and Women’s teams of all ages have now been banned from participating in any international competitions or friendly games with other nations.
International football is not the only thing that suffers. The league is now no longer recognised by FIFA, which means that Indian clubs can no longer participate in AFC Champions League, AFC Cup, or other similar tournaments.
Internal club competitions like I-League and ISL are unharmed by the ban and will continue being played as per the pre-decided schedule. However, the biggest blow is the fact that India will no longer be able to play the 2023 AFC Club Qualifiers. While India had already qualified for the competition, courtesy of a thumping 4-0 victory against Hong Kong at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata, this ban will prevent them from making any international appearances. FIFA has confirmed in their official statement that this ban will only be lifted after the order to set up a Committee of Administrators has been repealed, and AIFF gains back their full control.
While a ban has been looming on our heads for quite a while, the release of the statement late on Monday night left many people upset and shocked. Questions have been raised on how FIFA can take such a decision mere weeks before the start of the U-17 Women’s World Cup. People have gone to the extent of accusing FIFA of hypocrisy as they have banned AIFF on the grounds of corruption and third-party influence while giving the 2022 Men’s World Cup to Qatar, which has been in the centre of controversy and allegations for the last decade.
However, as AIFF is a member federation, FIFA has the full right to suspend them as they have knowingly breached FIFA statutes. It must be further noted that the AIFF CoA have themselves filed a petition in the Supreme Court with proof of wrongful activity. So, FIFA’s decision and powers can hardly be questioned in this regard.
Today is a dark day for Indian Football to say the least. We went from hosting the U-17 Women’s World Cup to getting banned from participating in any international competitions in the blink of an eye. However, one must notice the silver lining in this scenario. AIFF has been struggling for quite a while, but with FIFA finally noticing our problems, a permanent solution is not far away. This is not necessarily the end of the growth of Indian football, but the beginning of a well governed and honest body which will work towards the development of the nation rather than for their own personal gain. In the words of Matshona Dhliwayo, “The harder you fall, the stronger you rise…”
* The author is a law scholar at IFIM Law School, Bangalore, India.
(The image used here is for representational purposes only)