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Systemic Failure: How a shambolic AIFF is hurting Indian Football

Arnab Ray looks at how the Indian team will head into the next AFC Asian Cup qualifier hamstrung by key absentees thanks to the bizarre Federation Cup schedule.

As India made the trip to Myanmar for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup’s Group A opener, there was quiet optimism among the Indian football fraternity. Their ranking was on the rise, an achievement that looks less impressive when looked at it in more detail, but an achievement nonetheless. The team has seen plenty of changes with Stephen Constantine at the helm and the injection of youth has been refreshing for the most part.

The game against Myanmar did not go completely according to plan though, as the home side spurned numerous chances and were the better team on the night. However, they committed the cardinal sin of not taking their chances and India went home with all 3 points. The game was pretty unremarkable but the goal that sealed it was decidedly not so; it was instead a perfect counter-attack. Myanmar had men committed in attack and were exposed brutally by a goal which was made by some incisive build-up play from Sunil Chhetri and Jeje Lalpekhlua, before the latter released Udanta Singh down the right. The young winger duly found Chhetri with his cut back and India’s leading scorer needed no second invitation.

For Indian football fans it was a moment to savour, moments that have been sadly few and far between for most of us. With three important points in the bag from a difficult away game, one would expect the team to approach the upcoming home game against Kyrgyzstan with renewed optimism. Unfortunately, the heroes of the Myanmar game, Chhetri and Udanta have suffered hamstring injuries in the build-up. But what does the All India Football Federation (AIFF) have to do with this? After all, injuries are a part of the game, especially muscle injuries as we come to the end of a long and tiring domestic season for both players. That is indeed true but to completely absolve the AIFF of any blame would be plain wrong.

The recently concluded Federation Cup was held in Cuttack, Odisha with a schedule that puts the word draconian to shame. For those unaware, Cuttack in May is right up there with the worst football conditions possible as the temperatures soar to 40°C during the day. This taken by itself is bad enough but a closer look at the schedule further compounds matters. The group stage saw every team play three games in the span of five days. 3 games in 5 days. The importance of recovery time for professional athletes is not an opinion, it’s a fact; a fact that is either unknown to the AIFF or simply too unimportant to factor in when scheduling games. After all, how important could the physical well-being of the nation’s elite footballers be? A popular quote instructs us to never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. With the AIFF, it looks like there’s a healthy dose of both.

To nobody’s surprise the quality of football on display throughout the competition was adversely affected by the physical conditions but the real damage happened towards the end of the tournament. With a disappointing league campaign, Bengaluru FC’s season would be defined by success, or lack thereof, in the Federation Cup. The only objective was the trophy, failing which they would have to go without continental football the next season. They got the job done of course but not without incurring heavy losses. Chhetri hobbled off in the last group stage game against Mohun Bagan, the last of the three games to be played in five days. The talismanic forward has only just returned to light training and remains a doubt for the qualifier against Kyrgyzstan. The Blues faced the same opponents in the final where Udanta was stretchered off holding his hamstring. It has since emerged that the talented youngster has suffered a tear which should keep him out of action for a sizable period of time.

It doesn’t take a genius to link the above muscle injuries to fatigue and complete lack of recovery time in between games. So who is going to stand up and take responsibility for the blatant disregard to the health of the players shown in the scheduling? Not the AIFF, that’s for sure.

Kishore Taid, an Engineer-turned-MBA-turned-Banker-turned-Entrepreneur-turned-Football Administrator as his twitter profile says, has pointed the finger towards the club and its management as news of the extent of Udanta Singh’s injury emerged. The alacrity with which he has attempted to shift the blame away from the AIFF is alarming, and yet sadly unsurprising.

This comes as little surprise following the AIFF’s attitude towards the Football Players Association of India (FPAI). The next edition of the ISL is set to have a player draft, a move the FPAI raised concerns over. The reaction of the AIFF was astonishing, as a top official came out and said that they do not recognize the FPAI, raising vague questions over the structure of the organization. No listening to the concerns of the players, no opening of a dialogue with the players association. Just a sweeping, hypocritical statement questioning the structure of an organization. To their credit, the FPAI hit right back with a well-worded statement of their own.

In the recent years, the AIFF has almost seemingly become a parody of itself. Their deal with Football Sports Development Ltd has seen the latter take charge of the Indian Super League, leaving the AIFF to try and administer the rest of Indian football. The current bizarre situation of the ISL co-existing with the nation’s premier competition, the I-League has become a sideshow by itself. The roadmap of Indian football seems to be changing by the hour but the general apathy shown by the AIFF towards the players is an ever-constant. That is the sad reality of the current state of Indian football.

Arnab Ray

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