Patel gets the boot but Indian football needs a reboot
If a football commentator had to describe recent scenes in Indian football, he would say Praful Patel has been hit on the counter. From the glory and euphoria of standing alongside world football's most powerful before 66,000 spectators and millions on TV to being removed, three days later, from his position as AIFF president by the Delhi High Court for getting elected via a flawed process.
Patel now has two options. Either make friends with the new AIFF administrator SY Quraishi and go about organising a fresh round of elections, which means starting by rewriting the AIFF constitution, making it compliant with the National Sports Code and adhering to it. Or he can do as the BCCI's top man of the time, N Srinivasan, did when presented with a 2013 Bombay High Court order asking the BCCI to install a proper committee to investigate the IPL corruption scandal. Srinivasan went to the Supreme Court, and look where that took the BCCI and its leading men. #justsaying
Patel remains the AFC vice-president, which is common in football and in many sports under governance scrutiny. My prediction, based on the past dramas around the BCCI and Indian Olympic Association, is that the words that will be bandied about a lot over the next few weeks, mostly off record, will be "autonomy" and "government interference." Or that, as happened in the case of the BCCI, the airing of the bogey that without Patel and a few trusted aides, Indian football will be on the verge of total collapse. Yawn. Such smokescreens.
Like the one floating over the successful staging of the Under-17 World Cup. That has been touted by some as a revolutionary moment for Indian football. India has "become", it was said more than once, a footballing nation. The host team's debut became a "winning billion hearts" story, carefully side-stepping the awkward contrast - how fellow debutants Niger (80% Sahara desert) got into the knockouts and New Caledonia (population 278,000), also in their first World Cup, got a point off Japan.
Patel had once said said that infrastructure was Indian football's biggest handicap; closer to the tournament, he said the infrastructure had "been improved to be at par with the international standards". It has been only a year since I began reporting or writing on Indian football, but it is very obvious that Indian football's biggest handicaps are not related to the hardware, or pertaining to grounds or buildings or training centres. Our biggest problems hinge on our flawed software.
Software, in this context, is what is considered Indian football's priorities - the width, depth and longevity of our competitive footballing calendars across ages, our rather midget-sized (in duration and number of clubs involved) nationwide leagues, the shortage of qualified coaches on the ground and professionals in administration and the mindsets of a good number of the powerful running the sport at different levels.
At one point during the Under-17 World Cup, I was given a copy of a Masters dissertation by a 23-year-old student of Mumbai's Tata Institute of Social Sciences. It was about India's football cultures in an age of the newly-created leagues. The dissertation posed a very important question about the "new developments" taking place in Indian football - that is Indian Super League and the world U-17 World Cup. It asked, "Are these developments indicative of the betterment of the game or the betterment of the market of the game?"
There will be many who know the answer to this one. Indian football's flawed software means the two - the betterment of the game and the market for the game - remain completely disconnected. Hosting big events makes for feel-good, momentary distractions from the mountains that remain to be climbed. These are found everywhere.
The AIFF has received much FIFA-love over the past decade, yet it has chosen to sell off commercial rights to a private company to set up a glamorous, far-better-marketed rival league to its own official league. This season we are being presented with the first signs of the ISL-I League merger. Who knows where the merger will leave clubs. Not the fussy types who may eventually get what they want, but newer, smaller, less cash-rich organisations trying to find their feet and put in place credible junior programmes.
Travel around Indian football and you see, broadly, two extremes: one, privately run grassroots programmes that get no love from their state associations but still push on to send village kids into decent livelihoods and jobs through football. Then there are senior state officials who cannot be bothered to work with clubs to reorganize and strengthen their state leagues so that there are competition pathways for the young footballers coming through. FIFA's own financial and technical assistance programmes set up in 2015 across seven states in India - Maharashtra, Kerala, Mizoram, Goa, Delhi, Assam and Bengal - had to shut down in Goa, Assam and Delhi.
Beyond the leagues is the question: what do we do with our young? Should the national federation be running fundamental developmental academies? Or should it focus on creating a coherent, inclusive, longer-lasting league and focus, like England has done at St George's Park, a high-performance centre which focuses only on those at the very top who come through the private academies run by clubs? Seven players from the 21 on the under-17 team came from private academies who were picked after they stamped their presence against the official India under-17 team. What you wonder, is the AIFF's definition of scouting?
Planet Football must have many nations with similar problems - a lack of quality governance, funding, shining stadia - and still they tend to produce a larger number of quality professional players earning decent wages in footballing countries. When Indian football fans hear about Japan's 100-year-plan to win the World Cup in 2094, we are awestruck and staggered at what one Indian football person described as its "ridiculous selflessness."
Now that the Under-17 World Cup is over, it is hard to pin down an Indian football plan outside of two dozen under-17 players, a few AIFF-run academies and the dream of hosting the next big event. Mission XI Million was a bunch of photo-ops, information around a Centre of Excellence is nebulous and no one barring Mizoram has got stuck into any formal steps towards the Baby Leagues. The only widely-publicized option is the flashy league offering big wages being the way to develop Indian football. Go top down rather than bottom up. Indian football's software has a powerful virus in it.
The crowd and media response to the World Cup would have given the FIFA event itself quite a boost. Maybe this means that India is now the new staging post for more bigger, grander revenue-generating, headline-grabbing FIFA events. A notch lower than Abu Dhabi or Dubai or Singapore but still there or thereabouts. In terms of marketability of football, Indian football could very obviously be the global game's new golden goose. But no matter how golden, you would hope, no one wants to be a goose.