IIf Estonia hadn’t conceded five goals from Lionel Messi this month, legendary Indian striker Sunil Chhetri would be second to Cristiano Ronaldo in the list of top active international scorers. The 37-year-old has 84, two behind the Argentine, after scoring four goals in the third qualifying round for the 2023 Asian Cup.
This haul helped India win all three matches and cruise to a second straight appearance at the continent’s biggest event. Chhetri, however, is a bit worried that he won’t be able to take part in the tournament – and not because there are currently no hosts after China relinquished the duties last month. The concern is that India could be hit with a FIFA ban.
“I hope everything will go as well for the sport and the country will not be banned,” Chhetri said this month. “The ban will be catastrophic not only for the whole country but for me, because I am 37 years old. You never know when there will be the last game for you.” After the captain said his article, national team coach Igor Stimac told those running the game in the country of 1.4 billion to “wake up”.
Although the national team are becoming regulars in the continental competition, the Indian Football Federation (AIFF) is in turmoil. Praful Patel replaced Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, who had been in charge since 1988 but ended her bedridden term, as president in 2008. Patel’s rise from Fifa Council member and FIFA vice-president Asian Football Confederation, in the world of football has been softer than that of India. During his tenure, the fortunes of the various national teams have fluctuated, facilities have improved but the national game is in a state of flux due to restructuring, and the signing by the AIFF of a 15-year commercial agreement with Reliance in 2010 is still a controversial topic.
In March, the Department of Sports delivered its verdict and cut its funding to the federation by 85% for 2022-23 from the figure for 2019-20, with reports suggesting this was due to the national team’s poor performance , to disappointment with the performance of various age brackets and concerns about women’s football. AIFF was advised to focus on the grassroots. The Supreme Court was charged with settling the electoral situation of the federation.
This spelled the end of Patel’s tenure. His third term, the maximum allowed, ended in December 2020 but a new election, in which he would not be able to stand, did not take place (according to Patel, there was a constitutional question which had to first be settled) and it remained in place. The court appointed a three-man Committee of Administrators (CoA) to take charge. It was originally hoped that new elections could be held by the end of June. Now we are talking about September.
Fifa may have something to say about this. Other Asian nations such as Kuwait and Indonesia have faced bans in recent years for what the governing body considered government interference in the running of the federation. Officials are traveling to India on Monday to verify what happened. “I don’t think Fifa would have any objection to this development,” said Dr SY Quraishi, one of the three trustees. “The football elections were long overdue, the old team had stayed beyond their term and elections were needed. I don’t see any issue of non-compliance with Fifa here. We hope Fifa will understand and will cooperate and we will cooperate with them as we try to complete this task given to us by the court.
In 2018, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered a football federation election which was won by Ashfaq Hussain. His victory was never recognized by Fifa and he led a group that stormed the Pakistan FA headquarters in Lahore in March 2021, toppling Fifa’s normalization committee. The chaos remains, as does the prohibition. India is different from Pakistan, which is a country that loves the game but has almost disappeared from Asian football’s radar with managers interested and a national team that has played seven games in seven years and none since 2019. Fifa has given much more attention to India, with Gianni Infantino, like Sepp Blatter before, a regular visitor to New Delhi, and that provided more investment.
The country hosted the Men’s Under-17 World Cup in 2017 and will do the same for the women in October. The 2022 Women’s Asian Cup took place in January and despite a slightly awkward start when the host team had to pull out after Covid broke their bubble, it went pretty well at the end and the final, with China edging out South Korea, was a thriller. India has bid to host the 2027 Men’s Asian Cup, the continent’s biggest football competition. Hosting this tournament at some point is seen as a necessary step on the road to the upcoming World Cup in the subcontinent.
Recent events are a blow to Indian prestige but would be nothing compared to a Fifa ban. Such an outcome is unlikely but no one wants the situation to drag on. With major reforms underway in domestic competitions and a decision on the venue for the 2027 Asian Cup to come, now is the time for officials to do what Coach Stimac says and ‘wake up’, if not the sole winner in the whole situation may well be Lionel Messi.