Threats materialised into reality for Indian football as the apex body of the sport, FIFA, suspended the country’s top administrative organisation, the All India Football Federation, for “undue influence from third parties”. The Bureau of the FIFA council, which passed the judgment, also took away the country’s rights to hold the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup 2022, which was scheduled to be held from October 11-30.
In its statement, FIFA said that it was in touch with the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports in India. This suggested a glimmer of hope that the ban could be a short one, if certain conditions were met. But how did things come to this pass?
The current set of troubles for Indian football began after the erstwhile AIFF president, Praful Patel, who was also a FIFA council member, refused to relinquish his post as the head of football in the country. His excuse for not exiting the stage was the long-drawn out pandemic, coupled with a court case regarding the AIFF constitution.
But on May 18, the Supreme Court intervened, and removed Patel from his post. The SC also appointed a Committee of Administrators (COA) to run the AIFF. The setting up of this COA is where the contentious relationship with FIFA began, which eventually led to the ban.
What is the ban, and how will it work?
As of now, the AIFF has been suspended by FIFA due to “third-party interference”. Third-party interference refers to a situation in which a member association of FIFA fails to remain independent, is co-opted, and no longer has control over its organisation. In this case, the SC’s diktat to the COA to run the AIFF was a textbook case of third-party interference, according to FIFA statutes.
The suspension means, firstly, no international football — and this applies to all national teams, across all age groups. It also applies to both men’s and women’s football, and to all club teams in India.
The suspension also impacts international transfers, as well as any courses or developmental programs that AIFF officials could, or were taking part in. This in effect means a total ban on all football-related activities outside India. However, the league in the country, as well as domestic transfers, can continue.
But why didn’t FIFA immediately ban India after the COA was tasked with running the AIFF?
When FIFA initially took stock of the case, it believed that the COA would not make any major changes to the AIFF constitution. It was made to believe this by the COA itself.
But when the first draft of the constitution was released, it was seen that the court-appointed administrators had altered the executive committee of the AIFF, the democratically elected body among state associations that runs the affairs of AIFF, as well as the way the executive committee would be formed, and who could vote or be voted for in its formation.
Chief among this was that the executive committee would comprise 50% of “eminent players”. Therefore, 35 state associations with voting rights would now have to contend with 35 eminent players who would have the same voting rights. This went against the FIFA statutes – and even though the world body agreed to 25% player representation in the committee, no changes were recorded on paper.
Secondly, the COA made changes in the wording of what India’s top league was, how relegation and promotion would work, and in laying down that the AIFF would be running the top league solely.
This had the potential to reopen the great battle in Indian football — over which league, the I-League or the Indian Super League, would be accorded the spot of India’s top promotion. The long battle had ended in 2018 at the AFC House in Kuala Lumpur, with the ISL being made India’s top league and the I-League being demoted as a second division league.
While FIFA initially held off on the ban, these changes to how the AIFF functioned, without any scope of an executive committee present to ratify or challenge these decisions, were considered as third-party interference by the world governing body of football.
What does FIFA want?
In a letter addressed to the acting general secretary of the AIFF, FIFA has said that two main concerns need to be addressed in order for the ban to be lifted. First, the mandate of the COA would have to be repealed in full. Second, the AIFF administration would need to be completely in charge of its day-to-day running once again.
FIFA also stated in the letter that it wanted the AIFF constitution to be revised on the terms of FIFA and the AFC’s policies, and for the election to be held on current AIFF membership structures that are based on state associations only.
What’s the way forward now?
There is a hearing in the Supreme Court on Wednesday (August 17). It will essentially pit the judgment of the SC against the will of FIFA. An organisation that has in the past banned countries for far softer third-party interferences, FIFA will insist that all its demands be met or the ban would continue. A settlement on these issues will have to be reached, either in the courtroom or at a later date and time.
What will be the immediate impact of the ban?
The Gokulam Kerala’s Women’s team, which is currently travelling to Qarshi, Uzbekistan for the AFC Women’s Club Championship, may no longer be able to participate in the tournament. ATK Mohun Bagan, which was set to be part of the AFC Cup, may not be able to play in Asia’s second-tier club competition. Whether India makes the draw for the AFC Asian Cup is up in the air. The junior national team’s participation in the AFC Cup trials is in limbo as well.
But most importantly, FIFA has announced that the U-17 Women’s World Cup would no longer take place in India. Only days ago, the central government had announced the tournament, and tickets had gone on sale. The damage can be undone if the ban is lifted fast enough. But as of now, all rests on how matters proceed, and which side backs off.