From being run by politicians for 34 years, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) will be headed by a politician who is also a former player. One of former East Bengal teammates Bhaichung Bhutia and Kalyan Chaubey will be elected on Friday by the 34 eligible AIFF voters.
Founder of the Hamro Sikkim Party, Bhutia was India’s most decorated international before Sunil Chhetri. The former captain of India has a stadium named after him, he was the first in independent India to play in Europe, the first East Bengal player on loan abroad for a fee, the first to get the Padma Shri while still a player, the first president of an Indian Football Corps and is the only Indian in the Asian Football Hall of Fame.
Bhutia also runs a football schools franchise (in an interview, he said he would leave if necessary) and held various positions at AIFF, including leading the technical committee from 2013 to 2017. During that time, the senior men’s team El The team brought back Stephen Constantine as head coach and went from 154th to 105th in the FIFA rankings. He has also been an advisor to former AIFF President Praful Patel.
Although he has represented the best clubs in Kolkata, played in Mumbai and with Salgaocar in Goa, Chaubey has had a more modest career. A member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Chaubey has been on the India team but has never played an international game. He briefly participated in a soccer school in Mohun Bagan, but never held an administrative position in soccer.
However, according to AIFF branch officials, the goalkeeper is the favorite to beat the striker. “That’s because this election is really not about Kalyan or Bhaichung,” said the president of a state association.
“This is about most of the state associations sticking together for almost a year to ensure that everything related to the old regime was removed because things were rotting. And Kalyan has the backing of this group,” the president said, requesting anonymity given the sensitive nature of the issue.
That could explain why Chaubey and Bhutia have run radically different campaigns. The goalkeeper has largely avoided the media and according to his followers, he has addressed the states collectively only twice. Bhutia has been available for interviews and has communicated with the states individually and collectively. “Kalyan is a very good human being,” Bhutia said before requesting that politics be kept out of this election.
That said, whoever wins will need state sponsorship in abundance if the status quo is to be changed. Bhutia has spoken of wanting to help states financially as has Chaubey, but neither has publicly shared details of where the money will come from. AIFF gets $50 million rupees from his business partners, but his annual budget is almost $80 million rupees. The difference is made up by subsidies from the government and FIFA, according to a federation official who did not want to be identified.
Unless the states have a proper football season; unless the game leaks to the districts… all the talk about base engagement will be just that, the talk.
Bhutia is correct when he says that the turmoil since 2020 when no elections were held (former AIFF officials counter that they were awaiting instructions from the Supreme Court on the new constitution) has not helped football in India.
“For too long AIFF has had a top-down approach with a lot of loose talk like India qualifying for a men’s World Cup. Hopefully the new committee will eliminate that and have a leader who believes in consensus building. It is important to build trust with all stakeholders, including fans, FIFA and the AFC (Asian Football Confederation), the state president quoted above said.
That will be a major task facing the new officials, of whom 14 executive committee members have been elected unopposed and six former internationals will be co-opted. Preparing the constitution together with the Supreme Court will be another. Then they can see the structures of the leagues, the short seasons and the lack of enough clubs, managers and players in the system.