All India Football Federation president Praful Patel got his name listed in the higher echelons of Indian sports administrators last week by becoming the first countryman to be elected on the all-powerful Fifa Council.
As news agency Press Trust of India reported, the 62-year-old Asian Football Confederation vice president also had the honour of addressing the continental federation’s congress in the absence of president Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, who was mourning the demise of his mother.
Patel’s detractors wonder whether the rise of the AIFF president can be attributed to his abilities as an administrator, his personal relations with the other nations, or the clout of an Indian corporate house that has been bank-rolling Indian football for the past five years through the Indian Super League.
While we need not go into the reasons behind Patel’s rise as an administrator in AFC and Fifa, the real question is what would this mean for Indian football.
In the AIFF president’s own words, “This will give us more voice. We would look to get more tournaments, international friendlies, exposure for our kids.”
It is a known fact that being part of the world body’s Executive Council allows an individual a certain upper-hand in dealing with member nations, getting some preferential treatment to their national federation’s cause and aid the development of the sport in their respective countries.
It was this clout, even before being elected on the Council, that helped India get the hosting rights of the Fifa U-17 Men’s World Cup in 2017 and now the Under-17 Women’s World Cup to be held next year.
But to take advantage of such a position, the national federation has to have the vision and foundation to build on. And this is where Patel’s failure as AIFF president may come back to haunt him.
Over the years, India has tried to arrange international friendlies with some top Asian countries only to be snubbed as the standard of the national team hasn’t been good enough to compete. This happened even after India had qualified for the Asian Cup.
Even in the past when India hosted football tournaments and invited some prominent teams, they have either declined the invitation or sent second or third string teams. These tournaments were seen as nothing more than exposure tours for their developmental squads.
And this is unlikely to change till Patel starts to give domestic problems more attention than his international assignments.
The 62-year-old blamed the I-League clubs which pulled out of the ongoing Super Cup after failing to get a clear picture on the proposed roadmap for Indian football saying there was no point in meeting them at that moment.
“Despite my busy schedule because of the general elections back home and today’s Fifa Council, I assured them that I would meet from April 11 to 14. But, despite my assurance, they acted in a manner that is unbecoming of sportsmanship. What is the point of having this meeting now since they have pulled out of the Super Cup,” he had said.
However what Patel failed to explain is why he had no time to meet any of the teams during the entire season when they had been petitioning him to give them an audience and waited to respond till they ultimately threatened to pull out of Super Cup.
During Patel’s 12-year tenure at the helm of AIFF – he took over as acting president in 2008 after then president Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi was hospitalised – top clubs from Goa shut down citing absence of a system and vision to develop Indian football.
In 2010, when the AIFF signed a 15-year commercial deal with IMG-Reliance to promote Indian football, it was touted as a landmark move by a president who had the acumen of a shrewd businessman. Two years down the line, Fifa announced a 10-year development plan to develop grassroots football and game’s infrastructure in India.
The two projects ensured that the AIFF received enough funds to plan for the future but it would be difficult for even Patel to show any concrete evidence of the development work that has been done in the last seven years.
It is true that the federation has finally started age-group leagues ahead of the U-17 World Cup in 2017, the playing conditions during top-tier matches have improved and the national teams are being taken care of well.
But there is no denying the fact that AIFF has lost a brilliant opportunity to create a robust grass-root structure in the run up to U-17 World Cup where even the Sports Ministry was willing to put in substantial funds.
Add to that the mess of two leagues running simultaneously for the past five years, absence of a clear road-map on the possible merger and now the threat of I-League clubs shutting down, and it should be have rung alarm bells for Patel.
Instead, the AIFF president opted to shift the blame on the clubs for lacking sporting spirit and pointing out how busy he was with some other assignments while still trying to make time for the clubs.
Three years ago at a function, Patel had called himself an agent of change determined to take Indian football to uncharted territories.
“At AIFF, when I took over, I knew that at the end of it, I would become the worst publicity face of a football administrator. Because when everything will be very nice, I would have moved on.
When I was in aviation, I did the dirty work of funding the unions and getting the airports moving. Now that I have moved on, all of you including me, we enjoy traveling on the airports. So the same way, we right now are investing very actively, with all our passion, to develop football in India. And that is the most difficult phase.
I believe if you go for a short cut, Indian football will never go to the next level. And I don’t mind being the agent for change, taking the brick bats, because eventually there is no other short cut.”— Goal.com
Patel has taken enough criticism and still managed to further his career as a football administrator. It remains to be seen whether Indian football also takes a similar trajectory or will need another agent of change when the 62-year-old’s third term as AIFF president ends.