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Saturday, July 02, 2022

Praful Patel: The artful dribbler shown the red card

His critics say Patel’s rise in world football has been faster than Indian team's. Now though , the career politician's decade-long tenure at helm of AIFF has effectively ended

Written by Mihir Vasavda |
Updated: May 23, 2022 7:43:03 am
The career politician has been at the helm of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) for more than a decade.

For someone not interested in football administration, Praful Patel has done well for himself.

The career politician has been at the helm of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) for more than a decade, was named the Vice-President of the Asian Football Council in 2015 and, four years later, got promoted to the all-powerful FIFA Council, enjoying perks including a net annual compensation of $250,000, daily allowances of up to $250 on duty and having access to the best seats at any game at the World Cups.

Away from home, Patel has sailed smoothly. At home, however, he has often had to wade through troubled waters, be it the issue of the shrinking map of domestic football, the stagnation of the national team, or the delay in holding elections for the next AIFF president.

On May 18, his 13-year stint as the president of the AIFF effectively ended after the Supreme Court appointed a three-member Committee of Administrators to run the federation’s day-to-day affairs and finalise a constitution that would pave the way for electing Patel’s successor. His term ended as abruptly as it began.

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For 34 years, two politicians have governed Indian football. From 1988 to 2009, Congressman Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi headed the federation. When he got bed-ridden, Patel, who was the president of the Western India Football Association and an AIFF vice-president at the time, took over.

Reluctantly, he underlines. “I had nothing to do with Indian football,” he had told The Indian Express in an interview two years ago. “I was only a vice-president and happy to do my thing in Maharashtra. It’s only when Mr Dasmunsi got unwell that I got in. Otherwise, I was not coming into Indian football.”

Reluctant he might have been, but for a decade after that, Patel continued to stay in the position of power. During this period, India touched its lowest-ever world ranking of 173, in March 2015, before climbing up to the top 100 for the first time in 21 years two years later.

Some of the traditional football pockets lost their zing while new centres sprang up; youth development plans remained on paper even as the country hosted some of the biggest international age-group tournaments; the domestic game for men remained in a state of flux while women’s football continued to be severely neglected.

Patel, federation officials hasten to say, never meddled with the everyday affairs of the AIFF, giving each department the space to do their own thing. But he guided and gave shape to major policy decisions that have had lasting ramifications on Indian football.

The commercial partnership with what was back then known as IMG-Reliance, now Reliance Sports, was one such decision. While the Rs 700-crore, 15-year-deal, signed in December 2010, gave the cash-strapped federation some financial reprieve, Indian football paid a price.

The AIFF spent a major part of the last decade trying to restructure club football, as the Reliance-backed Indian Super League – a ‘disrupter’, in Patel’s words – with new clubs and new owners, overtook the I-League as the premier division. It was in the I-League that some of India’s oldest teams took part.

The confusion that prevailed during the time helped no one. The players’ salaries skyrocketed but the number of matches they play in a year remained among the lowest in the world, a situation that prevails even today. Some of the iconic teams, like Dempo and Shillong Lajong, scaled down their operations while the new teams struggled to find the same level of local connection. Grassroots development took a back seat as a consequence, which forced Patel and the AIFF to take a direction that was criticised by many – adopting a top-down approach to football.

In Patel’s early years as the president, the AIFF started a number of academies across the country but as each demanded a high level of maintenance, most were shut down. Around the same time, a master plan was drafted by the then technical director, Rob Baan, to develop the grassroots and give some direction to football activities across India. Once again, it never saw the light of day.

With the clubs not producing players and the overall lack of patience and resources to develop an ecosystem organically, the AIFF decided to approach the development activities in an unconventional manner. They did so by bidding for major international events, hoping it would increase the appetite for domestic football, result in more investment and eventually trickle down to the grassroots.

It helped that FIFA, which sees India’s billion-plus population as a market for its commercial activities, was willing to invest in India. During Patel’s period, FIFA put money into infrastructure projects in India and awarded the country the rights to host the under-17 men’s World Cup in 2017 and the women’s edition later this year.

It’s hard to dispute that the infrastructure developed for those tournaments, with investment from state and Central government, means the country now has better football grounds and training facilities compared to the situation 10 years ago.

But the top-down approach has not really worked out as Patel would have planned. This was evident when the Sports Ministry advised the AIFF in March to focus strictly on developing grassroots while slashing its annual budget to a mere Rs 5 crore, down almost 84% in the previous four years, citing poor performance.

The government’s perceived vote of no-confidence was the latest in a series of setbacks Patel has suffered in the last few months. While cutting its budget, the Sports Ministry also told the Supreme Court that the federation should hold elections without further delay. Then, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India reportedly decided to conduct an audit of the AIFF for the last four financial years. And the state federations began to speak up as well – be the heads of Kerala, Karnataka or Delhi, whose president Shaji Prabhakaran requested intervention from FIFA.

On the political sphere, Patel, whose family has several business interests, remains a Rajya Sabha MP, with his tenure ending in July. When his party NCP was part of the UPA government at the Centre, Patel headed the prestigious Civil Aviation Ministry. The prospect of a similar high-profile job seems unlikely for the near future, with the NCP fortunes for now confined to Maharashtra.

His critics argue that Patel’s rise in world football has been faster than the Indian national team’s. It’s an allegation that makes him “sad”. “I am happy that at the world stage, first AFC (Asian Football Confederation) and now FIFA, there is so much optimism outside India. Sometimes I feel sad there is so much pessimism within India. They don’t know anything and they are optimistic. We know everything and we are pessimistic,” he had said.

Whether a change in guard turns the pessimism into optimism remains to be seen.

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