The lifting of FIFA’s suspension of AIFF must have come as a sigh of relief for all, including the legion of fans in the country. The suspension had come on the day India was celebrating the 75th year of Independence. Surely, this was a ‘gift’, which Indian football could have done without. True, the ban lasted just about ten days but by which time all matters that had ruffled FIFA had been settled, and the path was cleared. One urgent reason for this relief must have been the U-17 Women’s World Cup, which had been allotted to India and to be conducted in October this year. It is a prestige issue for the Government, which has given its backing to the event, having signed all the financial and other requirements set by FIFA.
But the duration of the ban, even if short, was enough to bring out how embarrassing it had been for India. None reflected the poignancy of the moment as touchingly as 92-year-old Tulsidas Balram, the last surviving hero of India’s 1956 Olympic campaign. Reacting to the news of his then team-mate, Samar Banerjee’s passing away, Balram had said, “We were the last two surviving members of the Melbourne Olympics (squad). What is the point of living now –to see the worst days of Indian football," alluding to the ban.
Then again, in this short period, none took the brunt of the punishment more than Gokulam Kerala FC, the Indian women’s league winners, who were to participate in the AFC club championship in Uzbekistan. The team had even landed in Tashkent for this important fixture but little did the players realise that they were in for a shock. Welcomed first, the team was told that they had been barred from competing as a result of the FIFA action. Head high, they had gone aspiring for an international title and face lowered, they had to return for an offence they had never committed! The only consolation now is that other international engagements like ATK Mohun Bagan’s participation in the AFC Cup as also the Indian team’s international friendlies against Vietnam and Singapore, all next month get restored.
Yet the swift action of restoring the status quo notwithstanding, the scar will remain. In the 85 years since AIFF was formed, the national team had a variable course of progress. From being the best in Asia in the fifties to be a force to reckon with in the continent in the sixties and even seventies, the country’s standards (read ranking) may have slipped from thereon. It is around 104 now, but the sport is still dear to a legion of supporters in the country. Why even the AFC and FIFA had for long been talking of a ‘sleeping giant’ while describing India. Only, the giant did not get to wake up and dare others, instead the officials further whatever ends that mattered to them, hijacked the interests of the sport in the country and led it to a kind of dishonour that only seven other countries had suffered till date! Indian football did not deserve this depressing low.
The damage is done, and many a footballer of high standing from past and present as also budding stars will regret this happening, but as they say, the game must go on. That all this should have happened at a time when there was a collective euphoria over India’s showing in the recent Common Wealth Games is a kind of irony that Indian sports did not need. Indeed, Indian football has not been living up to expectations of late. What stands out still in these low-key settings is the work of Sunil Chhetri, considered one of the greatest footballers that the country had produced. As the third highest international scorer among active players behind none other than the sport’s greats Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, Chhetri has in his own way done his bit to keep the Indian flag flying high. It is a pity that his lion-hearted player’s tale of valour and achievements should now be placed along with this sordid act of the football administration in the annals of Indian football.
So, what does the future hold? Sure enough, fans in the country for now will eagerly wait for the U-17 women’s world cup. Having conducted the U-17 men’s world cup earlier five years ago and received appreciation, the lookout now is for another class act. As they say, the best way to forget the past is to make the present and future something to talk about. Another string of optimism is the kind of views that are emanating from past footballers. Bhaichung Bhutia is one such icon. The man needs no introduction. One of the finest players of his time, one who draws the crowd for his brilliance on the field, Bhutia is also a keen aspirant for the top post in India’s football administration. His vibes have been particularly noteworthy considering reforms are what football in the country has been crying for.
Bhutia believes and surely many will be with him in this, that time has come for changing the system and to that extent perhaps he thinks FIFA's action and the reversal thereafter can be said to be wake-up calls. An administration that responds to the needs of the sport was the essence of his thinking. The former India captain and the first Indian to have played 100 matches for the country, Bhutia knows a bit about how to call the shots. He had shown that calibre on the football fields. Will he be able to wield the same influence in administration? At least, he dreams big of one day wanting to see the Indian team actually qualifying on merit for the world cup at the senior and junior levels. Time will tell.