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SUNBURNT TERRACE: Fans call for reform in the AIFF, but what does that really look like?



England are hosting the Euros. It's happening inside a bio-bubble due to COVID-19. Fans can't be present at the matches, but this being a long awaited tournament, there's a huge anticipation. And then, news breaks that the England national team has had a COVID outbreak in its bubble. They are unable to field the team and therefore are disqualified from the tournament.

Imagine the level of fury there would be. Imagine the front pages of the tabloids, the wall to wall coverage on news channels. Imagine the anger from the fans. Imagine if after that debacle the head coach blames the continental body for poor bubble management and then it turns out it was the domestic federation's responsibility all along.

Would the top officials at the English FA survive such a catastrophe? Even if 99% of their bubble worked perfectly and every other team remained safe and sound, they messed up their own team. The fans would deem it unforgivable and the media would hound them until there's some heads rolling down St George's Park. Metaphorically speaking.

It's not the same in India. Football gets mostly ignored by the national news media. Newspapers and their online arms are taking it a bit more seriously these days but the real rage pump machine of the media, the news channels, seldom give it much of a thought. On top of that it was the women's team. Even less coverage.

Ironically, the AIFF media department's failure to garner prominence in the Indian media landscape has become a shield for its top brass today. It's been a couple of weeks and the questions have already stopped.

The only major front of criticism AIFF are still facing is coming from the Blue Pilgrims, a collective of the fans of the Indian national teams, who are running an '#AIFFREFORM' campaign online demanding change at the Federation. Way more mild and reasonable than what fans would do in Europe or Latin America if their federation was in the crosshairs for something like this.

Relative obscurity has actually helped manage the narrative around the single biggest failure in the history of AIFF since their decision not to enter the World Cup Qualifiers from 1958 till 1982; leaving India's golden generation that dominated Asian football without even an opportunity to take the country to the world stage, practically ensuring that Indian football would go into an era of decline as the rest of the world moved on.

Let's make one thing clear: the pandemic is not the AIFF's fault. And no one thinks they are doing a bad job overall in navigating Indian football through this situation. Their decision making with I-League has been on point. In 2019-20, they did not take any risk when the first wave appeared, cancelled the rest of the matches and kept everyone safe. The 2020-21 season was handled well with a full-on bio bubble. In 2021-22, the moment there was a breach, the AIFF quickly suspended the season to limit the damage and the I-League is set to finish the season relatively unscathed.

But AIFF's COVID-related decision making when it comes to women's football has been very different. Instead of doing the IWL in a bio-bubble, they just haven't done it in 2 years. And when it became clear that the Women's Asian Cup would coincide with the peak of the third wave, they went ahead with it instead of pushing the AFC to postpone it by a month or so, which would have made the tournament exponentially safer.

What's made things worse is that while AIFF officials are quick to claim credit for every single good thing they have accomplished, they just have not been forthcoming when something goes wrong on their watch.

Since the early 2010s, the AIFF general secretary Kushal Das has repeatedly and publicly called the I-League a "failed product." He has done so without a single hint of irony. He would blame the clubs for this "failure", without ever addressing the fact that it was the AIFF who had denied the clubs' request to make I-League a separate entity like the Premier League, run by a board that would have representation from the clubs themselves.

Basically, AIFF wanted to maintain control of the I-League and denied the clubs a chance to run and promote it. Then they put it on death row in 2010 when they handed FSDL the right to demote I-League and prop up their own league. This led to an inevitable decline in I-League's broadcast quality and promotion, and the AIFF top brass turned around and blamed the clubs for it.

That's a solid base of trust with the stakeholders of the sport right there.

In 2014-15, when they needed to cut short the I-League to make room for ISL's exclusive window, a bunch of clubs suddenly failed the licensing test. Then AIFF broke their own norm and introduced a corporate club from Pune, where Pune FC were already operating and struggling to grow a fanbase. This played a major role in Pune FC shutting down.

U Mumba - a successful, serious, ambitious investor in Indian sports who would be treasured by any league - were told by AIFF to stop doing their trials, because they would not be allowed a corporate entry into I-League. Disheartened, the U Mumba group shut down their football club. This happened while Mumbai City were courting the City Group for a potential takeover but I'm sure that's just a coincidence.

It was not long ago when one or two I-League clubs were shutting down every year. They were barely surviving, and had to resort to boycotts and threats of litigation just to get a meeting with AIFF President Mr Praful Patel. It took an intervention from AFC and FIFA, as well as the tireless efforts from some officials within Indian football, to resolve that mess.

Is it any wonder that many clubs and most fans are skeptical of the AIFF? When after the Asian Cup debacle Mr Praful Patel put out a tweet saying "let there be no fingers pointed at any", the first thing fans started asking was whether AIFF themselves were to blame for the whole mess. And can the AIFF blame anyone but themselves for creating this lack of trust? When the AIFF themselves have done so much to erode the goodwill, why wouldn't the fans remember the negatives more than the positives?

And make no mistake, there are plenty of good things that AIFF have done in the last few years. It's just that being honest and up front with the public is not one of them.

The problem, though, is that actual reform in the AIFF is a far-off cause. The fans are not dealing with a public-facing organization like a club. The AIFF is not an entity that serves fans. It has some tertiary mechanisms that do some fan outreach but structurally, it's insulated. To borrow a contemporary comparison, the AIFF exists in a bubble; and it's way stronger than the one the Blue Tigresses were living in during the Women's Asian Cup.

Financially, the AIFF is sorted. Their money mostly comes from FSDL. As things stand they have no particupar need to raise revenue from the sport i.e. the fans. So there's no need to appease the fans in that aspect.

Structurally, too, the AIFF is insulated. The top positions in AIFF are determined through elections where the votes come from state associations. Now, you'd imagine this is where the fans would have an input since fans do have some influence on clubs, who in turn can influence the state associations. 

But unfortunately, the majority of the states in India don't have clubs with large fanbases. Most of these state associations are happy to do the bare minimum to qualify for the grants from the AIFF, and they happily vote for those who are in power. So the fans' voices are not a factor at all when it comes to the AIFF elections.

So, once again, the obscurity of Indian football helps the AIFF maintain its protective bubble against the virus of public opinion.

That's why there isn't much to be gained by believing the current hype of discord within the AIFF. Yes, one or two state associations or certain individuals will raise their voice and tell scandalous stories about how Kushal Das appeared to be drunk during the AGM. But is there any indication that they are even close to getting enough votes to win the election? Nope.

And what's the guarantee that the people who want to replace Praful Patel and his group will do a better job at running Indian football? Have we heard who wants to run for President from the opposition camp? What's the agenda that they are pursuing and how does it differ from the incumbent group? Is there any substantial difference between the two camps?

We don't know. Why? Because they don't need the larger public's opinion on their side. They don't need to run a transparent, ethics-based, philosophy-contrasting, popularity-seeking campaign. The scandalous leaks to the media are meant to create PR issues to help sway some state associations, that's about it. This is an internal political game that does not seek to bring any change to the way AIFF operates at all.

Of course there's the legislative front that may do some change. We can see the new constitution come into effect. But how hard would it be to circumvent that? Praful Patel is not running to be AIFF President again, that's a given. But what are the chances that somebody backed by his group, who satisfies every criteria, will win the election? Well, there has not been a single anti-incumbent outcome in AIFF elections in decades. And the circumstances are not any different today. In fact, there are more reasons than ever for state associations to back the incumbents.

So where does that leave the fans' call for reform in the AIFF?

Many want Praful Patel to resign, which is not happening. He's facing bad PR today but in a few months we're all going to be celebrating the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup and no one will go after him any more. He's more or less done anyway. Although AIFF has been delaying the elections since 2020, after the U-17 WWC is done, he's got no reason to hang around any more. He can leave the office on a high note. So, making him a target is a waste of time. And even if his group are voted out of power, there's little chance that it will lead to any actual change.

What the Blue Pilgrims' call to action ultimately wants to achieve is a structural change in the way Indian football is governed. They want the AIFF to be a more open and transparent organization. And there are no shortcuts to achieve that.

There is only one way it can possibly happen. And it's not going to sound good to those who are looking for a quick catharsis from a social media trend.

As mentioned previously, the only avenue of influence that the fans have is at the state associations, through the clubs. So, if the fans want change at the AIFF, they need to begin at the state level. They need to stay updated on the elections and other agendas of their state associations. But first, they need to support a local club that plays in the state league. And they need to show up at the matches to make their presence known.

In states like West Bengal, Kerala, Mizoram, Manipur, Karnataka etc it already happens, whether the fans are actively aware of this or not. In most other states, a thousand fans who show up regularly at the local league can have a lot of influence on the clubs. And over time these clubs and the academies close to them can push the state association to back progressive agenda at the national level.

It's a question of flipping enough states. That's how the politics within AIFF works. As things stand, fans can't hope for that basic structure to change. But they can participate in it if they have the time & patience.

It won't happen overnight. But then no change of this magnitude can happen quickly. Especially when the people pushing it are fans who have no institutional power. 

As of today, no one within the Indian football ecosystem - whether a supporter of the current management or an opponent - is stepping up to champion this cause and volunteering to be the harbinger of change. Because most of them don't want what the fans want. They are happy with the status quo, and it's in their interest to keep Indian football as obscure and unpopular as it is today. They don't want popular clubs to prop up in every state. Because that makes it easier for them to hold onto power. It's this mentality of keeping power centralized that the fans are up against.

There's a reason the old saying, "support your local club", gets repeated around the world. It may sound like a cliche but when it comes to the fans, this remains the single greatest weapon they can wield in this sport.

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