On Friday, FIFA Head of Tournaments Jaime Yarza had some strong words to say on the preparations in Kochi for the U-17 World Cup to be held across six venues in India from October 6 to 28.
“I was here last February and, to be honest, while some work has happened, it’s by far not enough, which is a matter of deep concern,” he said.
“The work needs to be done by May 15 and given the large amount of renovation that remains, work has to go on at full speed,” Yarza added. Yarza also called on the state government to step in and speed up the preparations.
Just a couple of days back, Yarza had called on organisers in Delhi to move at a ‘stronger’ pace.
All India Football Federation (AIFF) president Praful Patel is not directly involved with the preparations in any of the six venues, but here’s the catch: no work was being done in the venue in Kochi for almost one-third of last year due to the Indian Super League, a tournament that is recognised neither by FIFA nor the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) as an official league.
“Over the past month, there has been a decent amount of work that has been done in Kochi. Unfortunately, it is a well-known fact that almost no work could happen last year while ISL was happening and that has had an impact on the renovation timelines. We need to recover fast,” tournament director of the Local Organising Committee (LOC), Javier Ceppi, said on Friday.
With Praful Patel at its helm, the AIFF has been helpless in preventing the ISL from hindering U-17 World Cup preparations and AIFF’s marketing partners hold major influence when it comes to decision-making.
It became even more obvious on Thursday with the appointment of Reliance Sports CEO Sundar Raman into AIFF’s technical committee.
Cricket fans will of course remember Sundar Raman from his days as the Chief Operating Officer of IPL. The Supreme Court-appointed Mudgal Committee report stated that Raman had been ‘in touch with a contact of a bookmaker eight times during the last IPL season’ (2013).
Dubious appointments and a controversial election
The AIFF president recently appointed singer-turned BJP MP Babul Supriyo as the vice-president of the Local Organising Committee for the U-17 World Cup.
AIFF’s justification for the appointment was that Supriyo was a ‘huge football fan’, and that he had ‘great knowledge’ about the game.
In 2015, former India team captain Bhaichung Bhutia was appointed as an advisor to the AIFF president while being the chief of the federation’s technical committee, and crucially, while holding a position at ISL franchise Atletico de Kolkata.
At the time, a player management agency called ‘The Football Edge’ had also listed Bhutia as one of its directors. These conflict of interest cases, however, didn’t come in the way of his induction into the role.
Amid these developments, it is worth remembering that Patel had been re-elected as president of the governing body in controversial circumstances last year. Despite the Delhi High Court initially placing a stay order, the elections later got the go-ahead and all 17 members were elected unopposed, none of these members being a woman.
It wasn’t an election in its truest sense. Seventeen members filed nomination papers for the seventeen posts, and were duly ‘elected’ for the positions. Goa, the only state to give football the status of ‘state sport’, was shunned from the committee, with no representative from the state finding a place.
The I-League- ISL conundrum
With the new four-year term ahead of him, Patel and the AIFF top-brass will also need to find a middle ground for the Indian league structure. Indian footballers have seen top-flight opportunities diminish in recent years, while the ISL continues to take away a major chunk of the Indian football calendar.
Quite unsurprisingly, even the Indian national team has had to sacrifice a few international friendly dates during the three ISL seasons.
As seen in Kochi, the ISL will continue to be a distraction for Indian football unless the tournament is merged with the top-flight, the I-League. It, however, remains to be seen whether the AIFF’s commercial rights holder allows for the transition into a merged league system.