In the end, none of the requests or interventions by the government worked. The strict rules laid out in FIFA’s handbook were followed in letter and spirit.
After a week-long saga, Indian Women’s League champions GK were informed by the sports ministry on Saturday that the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) will not make an exception for them to play in the continental Club Championship, which began in Uzbekistan on Saturday.
“It looks like both FIFA and (Indian) federation people are two sides of the same coin… hand in gloves,” Gokulam Kerala president VC Praveen said. “We are frustrated and feel like being made scapegoats. They pinned us out. FIFA’s interest is the U-17 World Cup. Now the World Cup will happen.”
The decision to bar GK from competing is a consequence of FIFA suspending the All India Football Federation (AIFF) for violating its statutes, which in turn made GK ineligible to compete in the tournament. The team will now return to India on August 23, the day they were supposed to play their first match of the Championship.
Gokulam Kerala has thus become the first casualty of the AIFF’s suspension that has led to India’s international isolation. The second club that could get caught in the crossfire between FIFA and the Supreme Court-appointed Committee of Administrators (CoA) is ATK Mohun Bagan. The Indian Super League giants are scheduled to play their AFC Cup Inter-Zone semifinals on September 7. However, if the suspension isn’t lifted by then, they too will be booted out of the competition.
On Friday, the government had written a letter to FIFA and AFC, seeking a special exemption for the Indian clubs to play AFC tournaments despite the ban. “We got the news from the sports ministry. The AFC all along has maintained that the club will not be allowed to play unless the suspension is lifted. A day before yesterday itself they started drawing alternate plans,” Praveen said. “The club and the sports ministry tried our best but it (the situation) was helpless because of the ban. We know they can’t let us play unless the ban is lifted.”
On August 14, the Bureau of FIFA Council, which comprises the world body’s president and six continental federation heads, decided to suspend the AIFF with immediate effect, citing ‘undue influence from third parties, referring to the CoA
‘Interference with club’s rights
“They (FIFA) could have waited (before imposing the ban). They could have ensured not to disturb anybody and still get things done. Yes, they have to put the house in order but they waited all these years without elections and didn’t have a problem. But when the government or Supreme Court wanted to clean the system they just woke up,” Praveen said.
Praveen said he ‘gets’ FIFA’s concerns over third-party interference, but the domino effect from the suspension of AIFF, he added, was ‘also an interference to the club’s rights. “After winning the league, we have every right to be in the AFC. What somebody with brains would’ve done is seen the calendar of what the Indian team is going to play, be it a club or national team, allowed us to play and then imposed a ban so that the club and players are not affected,” he said.
The move will come as a double whammy for the half-a-dozen or so national team players, who are in the GK squad. On Friday, India and GK captain Ashalata Devi said the decision reminded her of the ‘unfortunate incident’ in January when the national team was forced to withdraw from the Asian Cup following a Covid outbreak in the squad.
“These girls who are playing for the team, majority of their parents are daily laborers. Many of the parents would have laughed at their daughters playing football. Here they are reaching the top level, which is something unimaginable for them because two years ago we didn’t have this Asian Club Championship,” he said. “But we will be back next year. We will do everything to win the Indian Women’s League again and return to Asia. They can’t stop us from competing next year.”