India’s decision to send representatives to a meeting of the newly-mooted South West Asian Football Federation has ruffled a few feathers in the Asian Football Confederation as well as in world governing body Fifa’s ranks.
Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia had announced the formation of the South West Asian Football Federation, seen as a political move to wield greater influence in the sport than they previously have. Amidst the ongoing political standoff in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia left Qatar out of it, as ties between the two nations are strained.
Jordan has also been excluded from this alliance, as the country refused to follow in Saudi Arabia’s footsteps in sanctioning Qatar. The current headquarters of the West Asian Football Federation, of which Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar are all a part of, is based in Amman and headed by Jordanian Prince Ali bin Hussein. This could also be a factor as Saudi Arabia attempts to overshadow Qatar’s efforts at using football as a global tool.
India are among 10 countries along with Saudi Arabia who have been invited to this yet-to-be-sanctioned federation. Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Maldives have also been received an invitation from the South Asian Football Federation, whereas the West Asian federation members Bahrain, Kuwait, UAE and Yemen are also expected to be a part of this initiative.
A press release had stated that Saudi football chief Adel bin Mohammad Ezzat would be the new federation’s head and the aim would be to “launch a series of programs and competitions aimed at raising the level of Asian football”. From the All India Football Federation, General Secretary Kushal Das and Vice President Subrata Datta attended the meeting in Jeddah.
However, the federation cannot be formed without receiving the go-ahead from the respective AFC and Fifa committees. The AFC, in particular, has written to the 10 countries, asking for an explanation in this matter and questioning their stance on this initiative.
It is believed that the Asian confederation does not wish to get embroiled in this saga, as a sanctioning of this new body could lead to a major power grab by Saudi Arabia, not to mention massive re-structuring as not only would two existing federations get affected, but a third one would have to be formed.
As of now, the countries haven’t approached the AFC as a formal indication of interest is yet to be put in place, but the consequences for Indian football could be huge.
India might consider moving away from the South Asian federation given it is easily one of the weakest of all Asian football bodies. Countries switching federations to get game time against stronger opposition is not unprecedented. Afghanistan is now a part of the Central Asian Football Federation and Australia orchestrated a switch from Oceania to Asia, deeming the competition in the latter stronger.
Though four other South Asian federation nations are likely to be a part of this new body, a chance to play regularly against the likes of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait should be seen as a step-up from the calibre of India’s recent opponents.
The money on offer, a reported $500,000 (Rs 3.5 crore), is also of significant interest for a federation with a meagre operating budget. More interestingly, if Saudi Arabia does manage to use its position to further its clout at the AFC, being a part of this faction could prove beneficial to India in the long run.
Politically, the stance of the Indian government in the crisis that engulfed the West Asian region last year is a neutral one, and the AIFF will have to think before it makes its next move, or risk irking the country’s foreign policy makers.
Much will depend on the reaction of the AFC and its president, Sheikh Salman of Bahrain, as a failed move may invite sanctions.