Questions about a potential FIFA ban on Indian football have been looming for some time. Indian football faces probably its darkest time, with the All Indian Football Federation (AIFF) and Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL) at loggerheads with one another with the possible interference of a third party in running affairs concerning football in India. To add to the misery that already exists concerning the top-tier league in Indian men’s football, the operation of the AIFF requiring third-party interference could well result in a ban imposed by FIFA.
It is pertinent to note that FIFA in the past has suspended football operations in other nations because of third-party interference. In the current case, the Supreme Court-appointed Committee of Administrators (CoA) that has taken over the drafting of a constitution in light of the National Sports Code could be considered a case of third-party interference.
The decision to appoint a CoA will be further discussed. However, instances like the Pakistan Football Federation being suspended in light of a court-appointed administrator to take over the affairs of the Federation in 2017 and the Nigerian Football Federation’s suspension due to the appointment of a civil servant to manage its affairs in 2014 were deemed cases of third-party interference. A ban for Indian football, therefore, is indeed possible.
The AIFF and the I-League
The AIFF has been the governing body of football in India since 1937. It falls under the aegis of the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports. The AIFF is the body that sanctions running football tournaments in India. It set up the league-based system in Indian football through the National Football League in 1996. The infamous I-League replaced the same in 2007. Relegation and promotion are part of the I-League.
The I-League was often broadcast in the afternoon on weekdays and received poor amounts of broadcast revenue because people found it difficult to tune into watching the games. Furthermore, the AIFF had various issues concerning its functioning, mainly conducting elections and drafting the constitution.
The ISL and FSDL
The ISL started as a franchise-based league in 2014. Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL), a subsidiary of Reliance, was given the job of running the league. The ISL managed to call on European stars who had played football at the highest level because of the amount of money the league could provide. The likes of Luis García, Diego Forlán, Nicolas Anelka, Alessandro Del Piero and Roberto Carlos were only some of the big names who came to be a part of the ISL.
The inception of the ISL saw a drastic change in the fortunes of the I-League in India. It is to note that the AIFF also possibly saw the ISL as a tool to promote and develop football in India, given the Reliance-backed league had a better financial standing than the AIFF could ever provide for the I-League.
Although the ISL could be seen as the shining light in Indian football, it faced criticism due to its franchise-based model that did not allow for relegation or promotion and did not provide spots for qualification to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) competitions.
However, that changed when the AFC spots went to ISL sides in 2020, effectively making the I-League the second-tier competition in domestic Indian football. Today, there is no doubt that the ISL has a much farther reach than the I-league. The point of contention here, therefore, is that it is unclear as to which of the two leagues officially takes the top-tier status in India.
CoA and the draft constitution
The appointment of a Committee of Administrators (CoA) came about due to the inability of the AIFF to function in the manner required. Praful Patel took over as the head of the AIFF in 2008 and saw his third term—the maximum allowed by the AIFF—come to a close by the end of 2020. However, the AIFF has not conducted elections since Patel’s term was concluded, bringing in scrutiny from FIFA.
FIFA gave the AIFF a deadline of September 15, 2022, for conducting elections. The inability of the AIFF to function adequately led to a court-appointed CoA to oversee the matters of the AIFF and help in the process of drafting a constitution.
The draft constitution and its formulation in line with the National Sports Code are considered crucial in ensuring that Indian football makes progress and clarifies some obvious confusion. The CoA was put forth by the Supreme Court of India to deal with matters concerning the AIFF’s functions. Considering the state of the AIFF, the move was seen as a method to help speed up the process of drafting a constitution and ensuring its enforcement.
However, the draft constitution has caused further confusion due to the AIFF possibly ensuring that it runs the top-tier league in India. In that case, the I-League would take precedence as the top-tier league over the ISL, which still provides the AFC spots. To make matters worse, FIFA has threatened India with a potential ban.
Why would FIFA ban football in India?
In the past, FIFA has considered third-party interference in running the affairs of a nation’s governing body a violation of its rules and has handed out punishment accordingly.
Pakistan is a more recent example whereby the third-party interference resulted in a FIFA intervention. Pakistan has been banned twice in four years for third-party interference. The Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) was banned in 2017 and 2021. The Lahore High Court in 2017 appointed an administrator to take control of the PFF as the then-head failed to comply with FIFA mandates. Furthermore, there was a failure on the PFF’s part to conduct elections, which saw an administrator’s appointment. This was deemed as third-party interference by FIFA, leading to a ban. The ban was lifted in 2018 after FIFA was satisfied that the PFF had retaken control.
The PFF was handed another ban in 2021 because FIFA was not convinced that the PFF had control over its operation. The PFF was suspended, and the suspension was only lifted in June 2022 when FIFA was satisfied that the PFF had once again regained control.
The Nigerian Government in 2014 intervened in the operation of the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF), which was also deemed as third-party interference by FIFA. The Nigerian Sports Minister appointing a civil servant to head the functions of the NFF via court order was sufficient in FIFA’s opinion to suspend the activities of the NFF.
The above instances are similar to the current AIFF issue. The appointment of a third party to take over control of the federation is deemed a violation of FIFA Statutes. In India’s case, the ban could arise due to the CoA’s interference in the functions of the AIFF. If the above-mentioned instances are anything to go by, a FIFA ban is certainly a conversation to be had. If indeed FIFA chooses to ban the AIFF, there could be severe consequences for Indian football.
Consequences of a FIFA ban
The consequences of a FIFA ban on Indian football could be grave. Although FIFA’s jurisdiction does not extend to banning domestic leagues like the ISL and the I-League, a FIFA ban would see foreign players not allowed to play in India. This could severely deter the quality of football in the country. In the past, India relied on foreign players to add to its leagues’ quality, particularly the ISL. Some of the top players in the ISL are from outside the country. The likes of Roy Krishna, Miku and Bartholomew Ogbeche are among the best players the ISL has ever seen.
Currently, the ISL allows four foreign players to play in the starting XI. Although the league reduced the cap for foreign players from five to four, Indian football has improved over the years. This development could come to a halt in the absence of foreign players.
Furthermore, India could lose its rights to host the Under-17 Women’s World Cup, which is scheduled to begin in October later this year. This could severely dent India’s ability to grow as a footballing nation. India provided its men’s U17 national team with an opportunity to take on some of the best youngsters in the world during the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup. Similarly, the women’s U17 national team must also get the opportunity to take on some of the best in the world.
On July 27, Minister of Home Affairs and the first Minister of Co-operation of India Amit Shah tweeted in favour of the commencement of the FIFA Under-17 Women’s World Cup. He stated that the Prime Minister had approved the signing of guarantees for hosting the World Cup. However, considering past instances of inability on part of the national federations to take control of their affairs and the consequent suspensions imposed by FIFA, we will have to wait and see as to what finally does happen in this case. Owing to what India could lose out on, it will be crucial to see whether the CoA’s interference or form of assistance will be deemed a third-party interference by FIFA.