Sanjaya Baru was not exactly a household name in Indian journalism till his book The Accidental Prime Minister hit the stands. Many years later, while writing the history of All India Football Federation, an aspiring journalist may plagiarise the name to an extent and describe Praful Patel the accidental president.
That won’t be completely fair. Though, the circumstances Patel became the AIFF president in 2008 was somewhat unexpected. He was hardly active in Indian football, but when then president Priyaranjan Dasmunsi fell ill all of a sudden in October 2008, Patel, being the senior vice president, ascended to the chair seamlessly.
But insiders know that Patel came to AIFF’s rescue even before. In 2000, when a group of businessmen, led by now fugitive Vijay Mallya, formed Indian Premier Football Association and tried to hijack the game, Patel did a brilliant job. Along with Dasmunsi, he negotiated hard with powerful “rebels” for several days to thrash out an acceptable solution and restore AIFF’s supremacy.
Much water has flown under the bridge since then. Once elected the AIFF president, Patel has personally risen through the football ranks at an amazing pace. Certainly much faster than the Indian team’s rise in the Fifa rankings. From a rather obscure AIFF vice-president, he is now the first Indian member of the Fifa council.
Some of Patel’s upward mobility at the international level has helped India. Most of it hasn’t. In Patel’s tenure as AIFF boss, which will end in December 2020, Indian football has witnessed some good performances from the national team, steady spread of age-group football and increase in activities for the junior and women’s game.
On the other hand, the sheer lack of activities in the men’s senior domestic circuit has reached an alarming level. As one senior footballer, who does not wish to be named for obvious reasons, puts it: “When I started my career in 2006, I played more than 120 matches in the first three seasons. Now a footballer plays maximum of 25 matches in a season. He plays for six months and sits home for the rest of the season. In this manner, Indian football will never progress.”
The highs and lows of Patel’s tenure
Well, the footballer is not wrong. Ever since the Indian Super League and I-League have become two separate tournaments, the country’s leading footballers hardly play 25 matches in a season, the Super Cup included.
Only Goa and Bengal have vibrant local leagues. All other once famous meets have virtually closed down. Even AIFF’s newly-appointed technical director Isaac Doru has expressed his surprise with the set up. Despite their tall claims on the spread of football, AIFF has not been able to address this burning issue.
All of Patel’s predecessors spent years with local level football before reaching the top but he is an exception. It has helped to some extent. He is perhaps the first AIFF president who has allowed the federation secretariat to function independently. He rarely got involved in typical day-to-day “football politics” when it came to selection of teams, appointing officials, promoting referees or finalising venues. At times he did interfere but there was always a larger picture involved.
It has its adverse effects as well. In Patel’s tenure, state associations have been constantly ignored despite big plans on paper. They even complain about being humiliated. They are regularly being dismissed as no-good people and their genuine grievances are not heard. Patel has no time for them. In the name of spreading the game, he has allowed it to remain concentrated in the hands of a few.
One of Patel’s colleagues in the federation once said: “Our president’s biggest plus points are his pleasing personality, ability to convince people, contacts with men who matter and arrange funds.” His skills were at its best when AIFF was struggling for money before the 2011 Asian Cup. Patel spoke to people in the cricket board and arranged for Rs. 12.50 crores for team’s preparations.
Ability to raise big money also blotted his copybook. Patel would like to be remembered as someone under whom India reached the Asian Cup final rounds twice, broke into the top 100 of the Fifa rankings after more than 20 years and hosted the Under-17 World Cup successfully.
Yet, the perception could be different in the end. He may be known as someone who brought in big money but in exchange, willingly and consciously, handed over the sport to a single private party.
The draconian Master Rights Agreement and its repercussions
To say Patel did not exactly perform his duty as the head of a government-recognised national sport federation won’t be far from the truth. That he led the show in signing a draconian Master Rights Agreement with marketing partners in 2010 is now a well-known fact.
But the way he allowed the federation succumb to the demands of its marketing partners remains a mystery. His explanations about urgent need of money to develop football sounds too naive.
The MRA specifies the marketing partners will have the right to launch a league that would be the country’s senior league. Accepted. But why did he misled the world for five years before revealing the truth? The MRA remained silent on promotion-relegation. He kept quiet when they insisted it would be a closed league.
There was no mention in the MRA about which league should get the priority for playing the Asian Champions League. When his marketing partners demanded the spot, he called a meeting to hand it over to them. They demanded their men should be in every important sub-committee of AIFF. The MRA has no such provision, but Patel acceded. No one knows what’s going on, but not everything is hunky-dory in Patel’s federation. Certainly.
There is something strange in AIFF’s functioning. As his third and final term as AIFF president is reaching its end, Patel seems busy dismantling his own achievements. Brick by brick. To make I-League a truly pan-India championship was by far his biggest success. Now, he is ready to leave it in complete shambles.
Before Patel became the chief, Indian football was all about Mohun Bagan and East Bengal and Dempo to an extent. During his tenure, Mohun Bagan won the I-League only once. East Bengal’s best show was the runners-up spot, four times. Not that Patel stopped them from winning. But he encouraged teams from unexpected areas to join the mainstream. Bengaluru FC, Aizawl FC, Minerva Punjab FC, Neroca, Chennai City, Real Kashmir FC became household names.
Most of these teams have small time owners without deep pockets. They overcame it with passion that stretched the imagination. A book was written on Aizawl FC’s I-League triumph. Even a film was planned. Patel should have been proud of it. Instead all his present actions points towards destruction of I-League.
No one knows the hidden cause behind Patel’s policy of appeasement towards AIFF’s marketing partners. Is he being ill-advised, or AIFF has reasons to choose the dishonour?
A long time ago, a 42-year-old young Member of Parliament fought gallantly till the wee hours in the capital to rescue Indian football from the clutches of a bunch of corporate kings. Today, the same person is ready to hand over the game to a group of people who have absolute faith in money, not sporting merit.
Under Praful Patel, Indian football has truly changed.