Praful Patel on AIFF elections: Dragging this issue can be very disastrous… please do not underestimate FIFA’s strength to take radical decisions

Fearing a FIFA ban, which could grind most activities to a halt, former All India Football Federation (AIFF) president Praful Patel said he will talk to FIFA president Gianni Infantino and secretary-general Fatma Samoura to request them not to take such strong action. Patel also said he’ll speak with the Supreme Court-appointed Committee of Administrators (CoA) and ask them to expedite the election process, underlining that ‘dragging this issue can be very disastrous’ for Indian football.

On Wednesday, due to a logjam in finalizing AIFF’s constitution to hold elections, the Supreme Court formed a three-member CoA to look after the day-to-day affairs of the federation, thus bringing an unceremonious end to Patel’s stint as president. The Supreme Court also empowered the CoA – comprising Justice Anil Dave, ex-Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi and former India captain Bhaskar Ganguly – ‘to take decisions on holding of tournaments, selection of players and all other matters necessary for the proper governance of the federation.’

Patel said the AIFF lawyers had pointed out to the court that this could amount to third-party interference and thus violate FIFA’s statutes, leading to India’s suspension. “All possible scenarios were pointed out and after that, it was up to the honorable court to decide,” Patel, whose term officially ended in 2020, said. “There was a phone call from FIFA on Friday asking for the order of the Supreme Court as they wanted to study that.”

As per FIFA statutes, its Congress can suspend a member association at the request of the Council. However, the all-powerful FIFA Council can also temporarily suspend an association with immediate effect without a vote in the Congress.

The impact of FIFA’s suspension could be ‘drastic’, Patel said. To start with, it could lead to India being thrown out of the Asian Cup qualifiers, which are scheduled to begin in Kolkata on June 8. The country could also lose the hosting rights of the Under-17 Women’s World Cup, set to take place In October this year, Indian clubs will be barred from competing in continental tournaments and additionally, they will also be unable to sign foreign players other than those already on their rosters.

As per the court order, the CoA has been given time until July 15 to finalise the draft of the constitution before the next hearing takes place on July 21. The CoA has hinted that elections will be held within two or three months from the day the court approves the new constitution.

‘Do not underestimate FIFA’s strength’

Patel said he will use his position as a Council member to request his colleagues to give the country time till July-end to complete the election process. “I don’t want to pre-judge. FIFA is like a government, it’s systems-driven. You have seen how FIFA reacts very strongly. They have suspended major football countries,” Patel said, adding that he got an impression that ‘AFC and FIFA legal teams have offered their services to quickly find a solution.’ “I will do my best to tell them that if the court allows early elections, do not punish Indian football, but that can only be in the form of a request. I will do my best to talk to them in writing and in person.”

The Rajya Sabha member added: “Dragging this issue can be very disastrous. If it’s expeditiously dealt with, it’ll be the best for Indian football. In the BCCI, we saw years and years of the CoA running the sport. For the ICC, if India doesn’t play, there’s no cricket in the world. In football, if India doesn’t play, no one will miss it. I can’t tell the courts what to do, but my suggestion is, please do not underestimate FIFA’s strength to take radical decisions.”

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Patel looked back at his decade-plus long stint as the head of Indian football, which has been riddled with controversies, without any regrets and ‘with a sense of satisfaction that one has laid the foundation for many more years to come.’

During his tenure, the AIFF was accused of succumbing to pressure from its commercial rights holders, IMG-Reliance (now Reliance Sports), on many football-related issues. And while the federation’s dependence on corporate sponsors’ money increased, its government grant got slashed due to poor performance of the national team.

Patel insisted that the government support for football has always been ‘very minimal’ and lashed out at their policies. “They say ‘you win a medal and we’ll give you more money’.” This is not the right approach. How can you say that? It’s a very ridiculous argument,” Patel said.

‘Challenge to balance interests’

The career politician accepted it was a ‘challenge’ to balance the interests of corporates who pour in money, but said he ‘never let anybody dictate the way AIFF does its duty.’ “Nobody is doing charity. They give us money and get rights for lots of things,” Patel said.

He cited the example of the impending merger of the Indian Super League and I-League, which has been one of the prickliest issues of his tenure. “There was so much resistance from our partners (to merge the two leagues). But we could not let Indian football be driven by a closed league that would destroy it in the future. I can say with a sense of pride that I did push for it. I said, ‘nothing doing, unless this issue is resolved, there is no future for Indian football’.”

From next season onwards, the winners of the I-League will get promoted to the ISL, and from the 2024-25 season, a promotion-relegation system will be introduced in the top division. “The next people (in charge of AIFF) will also face that challenge. Integrating ISL with I-League will be a major challenge,” he said, guaranteeing that there will be no going back on the merger promises already made.

‘My position in politics would’ve helped AIFF than hurt them’

Patel said juggling issues like these showed that heading a federation required people with all kinds of skill-sets, going against the argument that former players should be elected to the top posts. Last month, the Madras High Court observed that only sportspersons, and not politicians, should be office-bearers of sports federations.

Patel said a democratic process should be followed to elect office-bearers, and everyone should be allowed to be a part of it. “Administration of football has nothing to do with just understanding the game. I understand the game as well but running the federation is not playing the game. The leader of the federation has to be administering the game, and balance various interests,” he said. “I don’t think it is right to say politicians cannot perform a job. My position in politics would have helped the AIFF on more occasions than hurt them.”

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