*Written by Joseph Pious
A huge moment of controversy erupted in the Hero Indian Super League, when the Kerala Blasters FC players walked off the pitch, abandoning the game in their eliminator match against Bengaluru FC. The team followed the decision of Coach Ivan Vukamanovic, who asked his players to abandon the game and walk off in protest against a refereeing decision, which helped Bengaluru FC to score a goal from a quick free kick. The Blasters Management filed a protest report to the All India Football Federation (AIFF), the governing body of football in India, against the refereeing standards in the match. The club sought relief through strict action against the match official, and to overturn the result, for the game to be replayed for a fair chance.
The AIFF Disciplinary Committee by majority opined that the protest is not maintainable in law after a comprehensive and holistic reading of the league rules and the code clearly states that no protest can be initiated against a referee’s decision since the said decisions are final and binding. (1) The disciplinary committee imposed a fine of four crore rupees on Kerala Blasters FC for walking off the pitch, which would increase to Six crore rupees in the absence of issuing a public apology. Coach Mr. Ivan was fined Five lakh rupees and a 10-match suspension, which would increase to Ten lakh rupees in the absence of a public apology. (2)
The Blasters management and Coach appealed against the decision but the AIFF Appeal Committee rejected the same asking to comply with the first order within two weeks from June 2, 2023. With no other remedy left, and the date for payment of fine having elapsed, Kerala Blasters is filing an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) against the AIFF sanctions. Whether they succeed or not, the whole dispute will leave the Club in a huge financial crisis. With the club already selling of its players and shutting down the women’s team, this would raise the question as to whether the committees decision of imposing the fine was reasonable according the AIFF Disciplinary Code or too hefty.
What is the basis of the AIFF fine imposed on Kerala Blasters FC?
The AIFF Disciplinary Committee imposed a fine of Four crore rupees on Kerala Blasters for misconduct and abandonment of the match. The fine would increase to Six crore rupees in the absence of the Club issuing a public apology. The AIFF Disciplinary Code Rule 10.1.2 states that a fine can be imposed on a Club. (3) Rule 12.2 of the Code states that the fine imposed shall not be less than Twenty thousand rupees and not more than Six crore rupees. (4)
Under the Code’s chapter of Offences, Rule 54.1 states that if the team conducts itself improperly (for example, a disciplinary sanction imposed by a referee on more than 5 players), disciplinary actions may also be taken against the Club. As a penalty for this offence, the Code states a fine of Sixty thousand rupees per expulsion and Forty thousand rupees per caution for a match in the I League or the Indian Super League (ISL). (5) However, in the disputed match between Kerala Blasters and Bengaluru, not more than 5 players from Blasters were sanctioned individually, nor expelled or cautioned by the referee. The Code does not define the term ‘improperly’, and only gives an example of individual sanctions. The penalty under this Code would not apply to the Club unless the Disciplinary Committee gives a very wide interpretation to the term ‘improperly’. It is the only reasonable explanation for imposing such a heavy fine. However, even in the term’s widest interpretation, the Code gives no specific fine for any grave offence, nor mentions the discretionary power of the Disciplinary Committee to decide what is grave and what is not. Even if the referee were to expel all eleven players from the team after the match, the math would only bring the fine to Six lakhs sixty thousand rupees.
Rule 58 of the Code describes the offence of “Abandonment” as the “refusal of a Club to play a match or continue playing one, which has already begun”. It provides for a penalty of forfeiture of the match, and a fine of at least Six lakh rupees. (6) In the case of an aggravated offence, the penalty stated is, forfeiture of the match, and fine of at least Six Lakhs rupees; and disqualification from a competition in progress and/or exclusion from a future competition. (7) The minimum fine that can be imposed is Six lakh rupees in the case of trivial or grave offences. The forfeiture of the match in the case of a grave offence would ultimately disqualify Kerala Blasters from the competition in progress, as it was an eliminator match in the ISL. Hence, the maximum punishment that could affect Kerala Blasters as a Club is an exclusion from future completion. Instead of going to this extreme measure, the Disciplinary Committee imposed a fine of Four crore rupees which will be increased to Six crore rupees in the absence of a public apology.
The AIFF cannot exclude Kerala Blasters from ISL competition, as it has the largest fan base and image in the league, and ranks 70th in terms of social media followers in World Clubs Ranking. It would only cost the organization a lot of revenue. With AIFF struggling all these years to set up a promotion-relegation system, such a loss of income would heavily hit its functioning. Hence, instead of banning the Club, AIFF went for imposing the highest possible fine of Six crore rupees, according to Rule 12 of the Code. Even when the Code clearly states the highest financial penalty for a grave offence of abandonment of the match, the Disciplinary Committee’s decision has gone way over the reasonable nexus between the event that happened and the fine to be imposed. Furthermore, there is no provision in the Code requiring public apologies or increasing or decreasing fines based on public apologies.
Financial Repercussions on the Kerala Blasters Football Club
With the AIFF Appeals Committee having rejected the appeal of Kerala Blasters, the Club was given a period of two weeks as time for payment of the fine. As a confirmation to their accepting the committee’s decision, the Club even issued a public apology. The impact of such a huge fine has already shaken the Kerala Blasters management. The Club is forced to sell its players without an option of revenue to renew them for the upcoming season. Spaniard Victor Mongil, Ukranian Ivan Kalyuzhnyi, Greek forward Giannou and Indian players, Harmanjot Khabra and Nishu Kumar has already left the Club from the previous squad. (8) The Club is also looking to sell off its home-grown talent Sahal Abdul Samad if a good offer comes, even to its South Indian rival Chennayin FC. Though this will provide opportunities to the reserve team players, it is going to seriously affect the experience and depth of the squad.
The Club was in talks of shutting down the Women’s team even after a successful first season having finished 3rd in the Kerala Women’s League. The Club was finding it difficult to manage the women’s team and with the additional burden of such a hefty fine, it had to temporarily shut down the Women’s team from functioning.
In light of these repercussions, Kerala Blasters FC has decided to continue its battle against the AIFF sanction with an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. With the two weeks period having passed and the Club having not paid the fine, it looks like the KBFC Management is going all out by filing the CAS Appeal. The litigation can cost the Club a lot more, but it can be an important precedent on the limitations of imposing fines by AIFF.
The Committee while imposing the fine noted that “game abandonment is one of the most rare occurrences in global sporting history, particularly in football.” In India, this is only the second occasion a side has abandoned a match in professional football history. The only previous occasion this happened was in the match between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan on December 9, 2012.
In that game, Mohun Bagan was trailing bitter rivals East Bengal by a goal when a stone thrown from one of the stands injured a midfielder. The game continued after a 13-minute break at the conclusion of the first half, but Mohun Bagan refused to return to the pitch, because the player was being treated for a cracked jaw, and Mohun Bagan players still felt unsafe and in danger. Despite having such a plausible reason for quitting the match, Mohun Bagan were stripped of all 12 points they had gained thus far in the league and fined Two crore rupees. (9)
Yes, despite having such a probable cause, of being unsafe of one’s own life, the AIFF imposed such a hefty fine being highly unreasonable. Therefore, it is of no surprise that a humongous fine of Six crore rupees was imposed on Kerala Blasters for protesting against a referee decision, in a league known over grave refereeing errors over the past many years. It is clearly not a case in which the maximum fine under the Code needs to be imposed. It should only be an extreme measure for serious violations of the Code. Hence, it could be concluded that the Disciplinary Committees decision was highly unreasonable, extreme and hefty for a Club not so rich in its root, which can ultimately affect the club financially for some time.
*The author is a lawyer from India.
(The image used here is for representative purposes only)
1. DECISION OF THE AIFF DISCIPLINARY COMMITTEE. (2023, March 7). Official Website of All India Football Federation. https://www.the-aiff.com/media/uploads/2023/03/AIFF-DC-Decision-KBFC-Protest-M111.pdf
2. AIFF Disciplinary Committee issues order on abandoned Hero ISL tie. (2023, March 31). Official Website of All India Football Federation. https://www.the-aiff.com/article/aiff-disciplinary-committee-issues-order-on-abandoned-hero-isl-tie
3. Rule 10.1.2, AIFF Disciplinary Code (2021 Edition). Official Website of All India Football Federation. https://www.the-aiff.com/media/uploads/2021/11/02112021_AIFF-Disciplinary-Code-2021-1-1.pdf
4. Rule 12.2, AIFF Disciplinary Code (2021 Edition).
5. Rule 54.1, AIFF Disciplinary Code (2021 Edition).
6. Rule 58.1, AIFF Disciplinary Code (2021 Edition).
7. Rule 58.2, AIFF Disciplinary Code (2021 Edition).
8. Mathew, M. (2023, June 1). Kerala Blasters to sport a new look in ISL Season 10. OnManorama. https://www.onmanorama.com/sports/football/2023/06/01/kerala-blasters-to-sport-a-new-look-in-isl-season-10.html