Last week, the Indian U-17 football team supposedly registered a 2-0 victory over their Italian counterparts, unleashing a chain of celebrations in the vibrant Indian football circles. Adulation poured in from each walk of life, with actors to even politicians commemorating the historic achievement on social media, while igniting hopes for a good performance for the upcoming U-17 World Cup, taking place right here at home. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) was quick to brand the victory as a watershed moment for Indian football, only echoing the sentiments of many in the nation.
But, the dream was broken soon enough.
Confusion ensued after Indian media outlets scoured Italian newspapers and football federation’s website for their take on the story, only to find none. Later, realisation dawned that the side India defeated was far from the Italian national U-17 team, and rather a representative squad merely composed of U-17 players from teams competing in Italian league football’s third and fourth divisions.
The representative squad boasted of a coaching and management staff completely different from that of the national side, while none of the players that played for Italy at the recently concluded U-17 European Championships featured on it, in spite of which the AIFF failed to differentiate between the two.
The AIFF’s administrators, on their part, blamed the Italian football federation for the gaffe, arguing that they hadn’t received adequate information about the side the Indian youngsters defeated, while citing a myriad of other reasons such as similar uniforms and incorrect paperwork, all the while failing to take responsibility for their horrendously embarrassing slip-up.
The incident has left the AIFF red-faced, and further dented the reputation of a federation that has seen its credibility crash in the past few months.
Only recently, small-timers Aizawl FC became national champions after trumping the I-League’s traditional giants, an achievement that can be equated with Leicester City’s Premier League victory last year. Yet, the North-Eastern side might not even be allowed in the top division come next season.
In 2016, the AIFF proposed a new competition, which would merge the pre-existing I-League and the ISL, thereby creating the new first division of Indian football, carrying the heritage clubs of the former and the hyper-budgeted glamour of the latter.
The so-called heritage clubs are the two from Kolkata – Mohun Bagan and East Bengal – and Bengaluru FC, although these too weren’t part of the original plan.
The AIFF’s proposed competition would simply be a longer version of the ISL, and thus, only feature clubs from it, while all I-League teams would make-up the new second division.
The I-League clubs, understandably, took great offence to the proposition, arguing for a rightful spot in the top division citing their illustrious histories and passionate fanbases.
The AIFF took heed to their calls and assured them of a place in the proposed league – if they could dish out ₹15 crore.
The draconian, overtly elitist regulation ignored merit and actual capability, compelling even the old powerhouses from Goa – Sporting, Dempo and Salgaocar – to pull out from the very I-League itself, in protest. And, if even they can’t cough up ₹15 crore, there’s certainly no way the humble Aizawl franchise can.
A month has passed since the Mizoram-based club’s triumph, and the AIFF has remained mute on the subject, showing little willingness to include Aizawl in the new league without them conjuring the said amount of crores.
If the situation remains unchanged, India will become the only member-state of FIFA to have national champions that represent their country at continental club competitions, despite not even being part of its top league. And that would, undoubtedly, be an awkward situation.
Preceding Aizawl’s championship run was another AIFF goof-up that’s of even more immediate importance, coming in the form of ill-timed management changes for the U-17 team only months before the World Cup.
In February, the Indian U-17 team’s coach Nicolai Adam was fired from his position after the national side’s players accused him and his assistant in a written complaint of being verbally and physically abusive on multiple occasions. The AIFF carried out a mini-investigation into the matter, before deciding to advise Adam on resigning, which he would go ahead with.
Later, a spate of reports reflected upon Adam’s time as coach, and suggested that although Adam had often verbally abused his players, the behaviour wasn’t beyond the realm of the accepted norms within football. Former Indian Captain Bhaichung Bhutia re-iterated the same, defending Adam and argued that the relationship between a coach and his players often carries a degree of strictness not found in other professions, and can’t be equated with abuse committed outside the sport.
There’s the possibility of Adam having dealt with his teenage squad the way he would’ve with fully-grown adult players, in which case he too would be at fault, although we obviously won’t ever have adequate knowledge to understand what truly transpired behind closed doors.
Yet, the AIFF’s half-hearted attempts at reconciling coach and team were deplorable, to say the least, with Chairman Praful Patel arriving upon the decision to compel Adam into resignation after just a simple meeting bearing testament.
Bhutia, doing his part, participated in the process, making efforts to convince the players to retract their complaints based on personal experience, although a concerted discussion between the team and management organised by the AIFF would’ve been all that was needed to iron out potential issues.
Post the incident, blame for the Indian U-17 ‘s horrid performances in 2016 was swiftly shifted to Adam, and the incoming management was portrayed to be the spark the team needed. The AIFF backed this stand with exceptional conviction, perhaps the reason it unbelievably mistook that representative squad as the Italian U-17 team. Though, in fact, even if the team had been the Italian national U-17 side, the victory would’ve done little to ensure a good showing in the World Cup. For one, the Italian youngsters faltered greatly in the recent European Championship, crashing out the tournament in the group stage itself, failing to even qualify for the World Cup and handing a loss to them perhaps wouldn’t have been an appropriate litmus test for the Indian squad’s skill.
In such dire circumstances, one could look at the upcoming U-17 World Cup itself for some much desired reprieve.
The tournament will be the first FIFA competition that India will ever host, while a good performance from, both, the team and organisers could pave the way for more international competitions to be held in the nation.
In April, the organisers announced ticket prices for the competition, to be held in October at six cities – Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Kochi, Goa, and Guwahati. The price bar was unimaginably low, with the cheapest standing at sub-₹100 rates, prompting AIFF to market it as their attempt to promote football in the country and a result of their efforts. Although, in reality, the lower-end prices are only due to the first phase of ticket sales, which carries a 60% discount, while in the absence of such the prices will simply be at rates normal I-League tickets are.
But problems will hamper the premier competition’s proceedings, too.
In Delhi, pollution levels go through the roof in Diwali’s aftermath, making it unfit for any open-air sporting event to be held around the period, and the World Cup won’t be an exception. The Capital will, thus, play host to only a single match during the elimination stages, which will kick-off only days before the festival of lights.
Goa too poses a problem, for although the tiny state has displayed intense passion for football over the years, producing national championship winning sides and capped players, it has failed to attract large crowds owing to its focus on tourist culture and largely scattered population, making it difficult for any one stadium to unite all Goan fans. The crowd numbers paled to the likes of Kolkata, but were enough over the decades to keep organisers interested, though they’ve only been dwindling in recent months and sparked concerns that there might not be any audience on match-days at all.
The AIFF has been liberal in the amount of preparatory autonomy it has afforded the respective state football federations in the lead-up to the competition, which means the aforementioned cities are on their own to solve their problems, though, indirectly, it also entitles them to all the credit for putting up a great show.
An example of this was the Keralan Football Federation, which received an immense amount of praise for its preparations in Kochi from a FIFA investigatory team that toured the venues earlier this year.
Perhaps, the AIFF too would do well with an influx of Keralan administrators, although a shakeup in the federation’s structure, no matter its shortcomings, should be off-limits considering the short period of time separating us and the World Cup.
But, in the competition’s aftermath, the federation will need to second-guess a string of recent decisions. For one, the proposed league structure requires a second look, for although the AIFF has mobilised its entire marketing armada to project it as the “next step”, there has been almost no sign within the AFC or FIFA that the league will even be officially recognised in the first place, and dissolving the pre-existing leagues for it without appropriate backing measures would prove to be imprudent in the long-run. On the other hand, if the league goes through, Aizawl would need to feature no matter the predicament, for the potential embarrassment outweighs the ₹15 crore they ask for.
Then, once the AIFF is done carrying out its pre-decided tasks, a government sanctioned revamp, for the joke of an apex body can’t facilitate the fulfilment of Indian football’s potential, and never will if it continues to exist unchecked the way it does.
And, such situations can offer even us civilians a chance to serve the nation, no matter the importance. So, if you have even a semblance of love for football – watch the U-17 World Cup.