Indian Soccer Needs A Fresh Start, But Will It Get One?

With presidential elections at the All India Football Federation (AIFF) this week, Indian soccer is primed for a fresh start following a short suspension from the global game for violating FIFA’s principle of no third-party interference. Or is it? Kalyan Chaubey is the frontrunner on the ballot, having garnered support from the majority of state associations. A former player, he is also a member of the BJP in Bengal. It seems then that a politician is being manoeuvred into position by India’s far-right ruling party to succeed Praful Patel, a politician himself.

Patel should have stood down as president of the India’s apex soccer body in 2020 after completing his third term, but with a court case over the AIFF’s constitution, he overstayed, leaving the organization in limbo. A FIFA Council member, Patel is a career politician and represents the Indian National Congress in Parliament.

For sixteen years he had served on almost every Parliamentary Consultative Committee on Civil Aviation before becoming Minister of Civil Aviation in 2004. Patel, the reformer of the skies, saddled Air India, the national carrier, with a debt of Rs 160 billion, always treading a fine line between his political and business aspirations. His family wealth had been built in the beedi [cigarettes] business, with the Patels owning a majority stake in the CeeJay Group.

In May, India’s Supreme Court sidelined the longstanding Patel from the presidency and appointed a committee of administrators (CoA) to run the federation on a day-to-day basis, amend the constitution and stage fresh elections, effectively bringing Patel’s presidency to an end. The CoA deviated however from an agreed FIFA-AFC roadmap and Zurich moved to suspend India, a most ignominious legacy of the Patel era.

“During his tenure, the AIFF started a lot of academies and focussed on youth development but they couldn’t sustain it financially,” says Mihir Vasavda, a sports journalist for The Indian Express. “The national team touched its lowest point in terms of rankings and performances but also rose to one of its best-ever positions. There was the U-17 World Cup, which led to a huge infrastructure push but the top-down approach did not yield great results. Women’s football was largely ignored during his tenure, and the last-minute push towards the end seems like a mere consolation.”

That push will culminate with India staging the U-17 Women’s World Cup in October. The host was drawn against Brazil, Morocco and the United States in Group A, leaving it with almost no chance to progress from the first round, but that is beside the point: the tournament must present India as a burgeoning and ambitious soccer nation.

The 2017 U-17 Men’s World Cup however proved that big tournaments and a top-down approach, despite the media spotlight, don’t work to further Indian soccer. The three-week event was a sophism. At the grassroots level, the Indian game remains deeply underdeveloped, fragmented and disorganised.

“The investment from that top-down approach in the last decade hasn’t trickled down,” says Indian soccer analyst Pradhyum Reddy. “It’s been mainly at the top level of the league. The relegation-promotion [issue] is a convenient distraction. The MLS and A-League don’t have it. You need to invest more at the grassroots level.”

“The biggest problem has been the lack of games, from the national team to the club level. If you don’t play the game you are not going to get better at it. It is even worse on the women’s side of the game.”

Ultimately, Indian soccer didn’t develop enough under Patel’s presidency. It has not closed the gap with Asia’s powerhouses. Other countries have taken bigger strides, Vietnam being an obvious example. “India doesn’t need glitzy tournaments but rather needs to invest more in developing players and coaches, and create better facilities,” adds Vasavda. The new AIFF president then will need to do better.