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AIFF report card: More misses than hits after SAFF high

The decision of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) to charter a plane for the men’s national team three days before its annual general meeting is like a penalty save late in the game that might lift a team. AIFF president Kalyan Chaubey’s assurance to head coach Igor Stimac of a “no-compromise stand,” which included flying direct to Abha in Saudi Arabia for the World Cup qualifier against Afghanistan on March 21, came on Thursday. One day before, he had written to his executive committee denying allegations of financial foul play and cronyism made by a former legal head of AIFF.

After winning SAFF, India were 99th; after no goals and no points in the 2024 Asian Cup, they are 117.(AFP/Getty Images)

The AGM in 2023 was held on the day India won the SAFF Championship, the come-from-behind win against Kuwait getting Chaubey to leap into Stimac’s arms. Between that embrace and till their meeting in Kolkata on Thursday, neither denied reports of a breakdown in communication. From July 4, 2023 to March 10, from Bengaluru to Itanagar, one AGM to another, AIFF’s report card has more misses than hits.

The teams

The national teams are AIFF’s most valued assets. Rankings don’t tell the full story but slipping south is always bad optics. After winning SAFF, India were 99th; after no goals and no points in the 2024 Asian Cup, they are 117. The senior women’s team, which finished second in Turkey last month despite being the top ranked side, too has dropped four slots to 65th.

The Asian Games in Hangzhou did not influence India’s rankings as it was an under-23 competition, but it did taint AIFF’s reputation. Since the 2023 edition wasn’t during an international break, clubs refused to release footballers, so when AIFF announced the squad, it had only 17 members. “I don’t want to go there and lose face,” skipper Sunil Chhetri said while issuing an appeal to strengthen the squad.

It worked to an extent but India reached Hangzhou hours before their first game. Players joined after that and had to be used on the day they had flown in. A pre-quarter-final exit felt like an achievement. Just before the Games, the men’s under-23 team went for the Asian qualifiers, lost both games and were eliminated. The qualifiers were the team’s first games in nearly two years.

India played the Asian Cup after training for 13 days, which was less than half of what Stimac and players wanted. In a season where general elections are due, ISL couldn’t pause for that long. Stimac had said he was willing to sacrifice the international windows in September and October but without consulting its head coach, AIFF had committed to playing the King’s Cup (September 7-10) and Merdeka (October 13-17).

That cut into preparation time for Asian Cup where India, as per average team rankings, were in the toughest group of the 24-team competition. But before that, India beat Kuwait away, brightening chances of a first-ever third-round berth in a World Cup qualifying cycle. By then, AIFF had given Stimac a new contract that could run till 2028.

Dennerby saga

The women’s side too faced off-the-field issues. AIFF named Anthony Andrews as Thomas Dennerby’s replacement, preferring a coach with no international experience over one who took Sweden to the third place in the 2011 World Cup. This, after players requested AIFF to retain Dennerby till the Olympic qualifiers later in 2023. Having ignored them initially, AIFF then changed its mind.

But it could not arrange for a friendly ahead of the Asian Games where India were eliminated after two close losses. What followed after the Olympic qualifiers was absence of clarity on appointing a head coach and India missing the last international break in 2023.

The tournaments

For the first time, Indian Women’s League (IWL) is being held in the home-and-away format. All seven IWL teams have been given a subsidy of 25 lakh, another first. An under-20 men’s national championship will begin next month replacing the under-21 championship that was stopped in 2020 due to the pandemic. Also paused during Covid-19, the national junior and sub-junior championships for boys and girls have resumed.

But AIFF is yet to announce dates of the under-13 and under-15 youth leagues. Nine clubs pulled out of the planned IWL second division citing cost and lack of players. The institutions league, a way to get PSUs back bypassing the mandatory licensing structure for clubs and possibly expand players’ employment opportunities, remains a non-starter.

FIFA academy

Getting FIFA’s chief of global football development Arsene Wenger to India for the first time was an achievement. The former Arsenal manager interacted with stakeholders in New Delhi and Mumbai and was in Bhubaneswar where FIFA’s academy is based. But 38 of the 50 boys chosen were not up to the mark, FIFA officials said. So, after a coach has been appointed to work at the academy, players will be scouted anew. Chaubey has written to the executive committee that India will have five FIFA academies.

The administration

Over the past four months, AIFF has had to call its executive committee twice to ratify one dismissal: secretary-general Shaji Prabhakaran. The first was rejected by the Delhi high court, which Prabhakaran had moved challenging his dismissal. The court will hear the matter again in May. Since Prabhakaran’s dismissal and allegations against Chaubey, former India captain Bhaichung Bhutia has regularly called for fresh elections. And while AIFF has kept hiring, most employees associated with the Vision 2047 plan unveiled in January 2023 have left. In the middle of all this, AIFF has not been able to hand over awards to players it chose as the best in July 2023. A fresh list should be out on Sunday.

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