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Home / Opinion / Views /  FIFA red card to AIFF reveals the mess in football governance

With less than 100 days to go for the 2022 edition of the football World Cup in Doha, Qatar, the sport’s global apex body, FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association) has suspended All India Football Federation (AIFF). This suspension has not only dealt a body-blow to India’s global football aspirations but also seems to shine a light into FIFA’s and AIFF’s darker corners, apart from highlighting the rot in management of sports bodies. It is also a big disappointment for players and supporters. The bureaucracy and diplomacy apparatus for Indian sports must make sure the setback will not jeopardise India’s hosting of the under-17 women’s world cup scheduled for October.

As a federation of state football associations, AIFF is the sport’s governing body in India, with an oversight from the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports which formally recognises national sports bodies. The FIFA ban brings to a head the legal quagmire that has swamped AIFF for the past 10 years. A brief recap of the legal process is instructive before understanding reasons for FIFA’s ban.

The Delhi high court, taking cognisance of some complaints, set aside in October 2017 AIFF’s December 2016 election results and appointed SY Quraishi as the administrator-cum-returning officer for conducting elections within a prescribed time limit. AIFF challenged this in Supreme Court which, in its order of November 2017, stayed the Delhi high court judgement and appointed former chief election commissioner SY Quraishi and former India captain Bhaskar Ganguly as the Committee of Administrators (CoA) to formulate the AIFF’s constitution in line with the National Sports Development Code of India, 2011, and, conduct elections and ensure the constitution of the executive committee.

Indian football’s long and tortuous legal road can be best understood from the fact that in May 2022 the Supreme Court had to intervene once again, remove AIFF office bearers for not holding elections and modify its 2017 order to re-appoint Quraishi, Ganguly and Justice (retired) Anil Dave as the CoA. The court order empowered, “…the CoA to provide its inputs to facilitate the adoption of the Constitution of the AIFF under the directions of the Court after considering suggestions/objections. The CoA was also directed to prepare the electoral college for the purpose of conducting elections to the Executive Committee in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution as proposed subject to further directions of this Court."

The CoA submitted its final draft of AIFF’s constitution to court on 15 July, aligning it with the ministry’s National Sports Development Code. On August 3, 2022, the court, while hearing objections to the draft, approved the CoA-recommended election time schedule. The court also decided to go ahead with CoA’s recommendation of creating an electoral college comprising representatives from 36 state associations and 36 former football players. The ministry, represented by additional solicitor general Sanjay Jain, also endorsed the inclusion of 36 players in the electoral college. The court also observed, in passing, “…we have also taken note of the fact that the model statutes which are being notified by FIFA do also contemplate due representation to sports players."

The fun and games begin after this.

FIFA’s sudden decision to ban AIFF on August 14, 2022, took everybody by surprise, especially because the sports body was in constant discussions with the CoA, AIFF and the sports ministry about conducting the elections. In a communication to the AIFF, it had expressed its reservations about inducting 36 former players into the electoral college, though it had no objection to AIFF co-opting 25% of the executive committee strength as former players. Strangely, it also wanted the eventual outcome to be balanced with the sovereign guidelines.

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In a statement issued after the ban, the CoA felt that FIFA’s communication was broadly in line with the electoral process initiated under the Supreme Court’s stewardship. “…the CoA is surprised by the world body’s decision to slap the suspension on Indian Football in the midst of discussions going on among all stakeholders to find the best possible solution in the current situation. The fact that while the letter dated August 15, 2022, from FIFA stated that Indian Football was being suspended from August 14, 2022, the discussions between the world body and all stakeholders in India were in full swing till late in the day on August 15, 2022."

The ambiguous wording of the ban decision has also led to much speculation, especially since the earlier AIFF president is part of the FIFA decision-making body: “The Bureau of the FIFA Council has unanimously decided to suspend the All India Football Federation (AIFF) with immediate effect due to undue influence from third parties, which constitutes a serious violation of the FIFA Statutes."

The specific clause–“undue influence from third parties"–has triggered a guessing game. Is FIFA objecting to the elections being held under the aegis of the Supreme Court? Or, is it the CoA’s selection of an independent returning officer and an assistant returning officer? FIFA’s purpose in enforcing the ban also seems curious, given that its letter to AIFF has been seeking some level of autonomy for AIFF in deciding its statutes, away from the gaze of the courts.

The Supreme court on Wednesday told the Indian government, represented by solicitor general Tushar Mehta, to work on lifting FIFA’s ban of AIFF. The final whistle in this game clearly seems a long way off.

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