Praful Patel: The artful dribbler shown the red card

For someone who is not interested in football management, Prafull Patel is doing well for himself.

The career politician has been at the helm of the All India Football Association (AIFF) for more than a decade, was appointed as the Vice-President of the Asian Football Council in 2015, and four years later, he was promoted to the powerful FIFA. The board, whose benefits include a net annual compensation of $250,000, per diem of up to $250 per service and access to the best seats in any World Cup match.

Far from home, Patel sailed smoothly. However, he has often had to wade through turbulent waters, be it due to a shrinking domestic football map, the national team stagnating, or delays in holding the election for the next FIFA president.

On May 18, his 13-year tenure as AIFF president effectively ended after the Supreme Court appointed a three-member panel of administrators to manage the day-to-day affairs of the federation. Finalizing a constitution that would pave the way for the election of Patel’s successor. His term ended as abruptly as it began.

For 34 years, two politicians have ruled Indian football. From 1988 to 2009, Congressman Priya Ranjan Desmonese chaired the union. When bedridden, Patel, who was the president of the West Indian Football Association and vice-president of FIFA at the time, took over the task.

He reluctantly confirms. “I had nothing to do with Indian football,” he had told the Indian Express in an interview two years ago. “I was just a vice president and I was happy to do something in Maharashtra. Only when Mr. Dasmunsi got sick did I enter. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be in Indian football.”

He may have been hesitant, but for a decade after that, Patel continued to remain in a position of power. During this period, India touched its lowest ever global ranking with a score of 173, in March 2015, before climbing to the top 100 for the first time in 21 years two years later.

Some pockets of traditional football have lost their momentum while new centers have emerged; Youth development plans remained on paper even as the country hosted some of the biggest international tournaments for age groups; The men’s domestic match remained in flux while women’s football continued to be deeply neglected.

Battle, and federation officials are quick to say, have never interfered in the day-to-day affairs of FIFA, giving each division the space to do their own thing. But he directed and shaped major policy decisions that have had lasting repercussions on Indian football.

A business partnership with what was known at the time as IMG-Reliance, now Reliance Sports, was one such decision. While the Rs 700 crore, 15-year deal signed in December 2010 gave the cash-strapped federation some financial reprieve, Indian football paid the price.

The Asian Football Confederation has spent much of the past decade trying to restructure club football, with the Indian Premier League backed by Reliance – in Patel’s words – with new clubs and new owners, overtaking the Premier League to become the first division. . Some of the oldest teams in India participated in the I-League.

The confusion that prevailed at that time did not help anyone. Players’ salaries have risen dramatically, but the number of matches they play in one year has remained among the lowest in the world, which is the situation prevailing even today. Some popular teams, such as Dempo and Shillong Lajong, have scaled back their operations while newer teams have struggled to find the same level of local contact. As a result, grassroots development took a back seat, forcing Patel and FIFA to take a direction many criticized – adopting a top-down approach to football.

In Patel’s early years as president, FIFA started a number of academies across the country, but because each demanded a high level of maintenance, most were closed. Around the same time, a master plan was formulated by the then head coach, Rob Ban, to develop the grassroots and give some direction to football activities across India. Once again, he never saw the light of day.

With clubs not producing players and a general lack of patience and resources to develop an organic ecosystem, the AFC has decided to approach development activities in an unconventional way. They did so by bidding for major international events, in the hope that it would increase appetite for domestic football, result in more investment and eventually go to the grassroots.

This helped that FIFA, which sees India’s population of over one billion people as a market for its business activities, was willing to invest in India. During Patel’s tenure, FIFA invested money in infrastructure projects in India and awarded the country the rights to host the men’s U-17 World Cup in 2017 and the women’s edition later this year.

It is hard to dispute that the infrastructure developed for those tournaments, with investment from the state and central government, means the country now has better football stadiums and training facilities than it did 10 years ago.

But the top-down approach didn’t really work out as Patel had planned. This was evident when the Sports Ministry advised FIFA in March to focus strictly on grassroots development while reducing its annual budget to just Rs 5 crore, down around 84% in the previous four years, citing poor performance.

The government’s no-confidence vote was the latest in a series of setbacks Patel has suffered in the past few months. While cutting its budget, the Sports Ministry told the Supreme Court that the federation must hold elections without further delay. Then, it was reported that the Comptroller and Auditor General of India decided to conduct an audit of the AIFF for the past four financial years. And the state federations started talking too – whether it was the presidents of Kerala, Karnataka or Delhi, whose president Shaji Prabhakaran had requested the intervention of FIFA.

On the political front, Patel, whose family has several business interests, remains the MP for the Rajya Sabha, and his term expires in July. When his party, the NCP, was part of the UPA government at the center, Patel headed the prestigious Ministry of Civil Aviation. The prospect of a similar high-ranking job seems unlikely in the near future, with the fortunes of the NCP at present confined to Maharashtra.

His critics argue that Patel’s rise in world football has been faster than that of the Indian national team. It’s a claim that makes him “sad”. “I am happy because at the global level, first the AFC (the Asian Football Confederation) and now FIFA, there is a lot of optimism outside India. Sometimes I feel sad and there is a lot of pessimism inside India. They know nothing and they are optimistic. We know everything,” he said. We are pessimistic.”

It remains to be seen whether the changing of the guard turns pessimism into optimism.

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