Ever-changing teams, an astrologer and a culture manifesto: A week in the life of AIFF (again)


Hello, AIFF, it’s been a while.

The last time these pages recorded “a week in the life of the AIFF” the All India Football Federation was about to get banned by FIFA. Since then, a lot has happened –including said ban, elections, a new president/administration, the same old IWL, and a new-found high for the men’s national team — but the more things have changed, the more they’ve remained the same.

The last week, especially, has seen peak AIFF-ness that rivals any such moment in the past; it features astrologers, U-turns and a culture manifesto (not for the federation but for the Indian team).

First, the context:

India, under coach Igor Stimac, win the Intercontinental Cup and the SAFF Championship back-to-back. This bodes well for its performance at two upcoming events: the Asian Games and the AFC Asian Cup. Participation in the Asian Games is not guaranteed but new AIFF President Kalyan Chaubey manages to convince (first) the Indian Olympic Authority’s newer president PT Usha and (then) the Sports Ministry that the men’s team should go.

On August 1, the AIFF announce a team packed with some of the best young talent — it’s essentially an under-23 competition after all — and three long-serving veterans will be going.

More than a month later, on September 7, the ISL announce their league calendar: the start of the season clashes squarely with the Asian Games competition. To add to this, Mumbai City, Mohun Bagan SG and Odisha FC have AFC Champions League/AFC Cup matches around the same time too.

With the clubs not bound to release players, the issue escalates to a single question: Who should get priority, club or country?

Now, a week in the life of AIFF (again):

Tuesday (Sep 12) morning

The last time we wrote this, news had just broken that the AIFF (under its previous administration) had paid Rs.16 Lakhs to an astrologer. On Tuesday, news broke that Stimac himself had conducted team selection based on advice from said astrologer. One example: Two established players did not make the starting XI against Afghanistan (in a World Cup qualifier) because their stars were not favourable.

This news breaks two days after the second of India’s two (very tightly fought) losses at the King’s Cup in Thailand.

Tuesday mid-morning

The ISL kicks off its anticipation-building with the first of two media days. Five clubs attend in Bengaluru (the other seven on the next day in Kolkata). Coaches are asked about releasing players for national team duty and how that affects their season, and they all treat those questions like an in-form Rahul Dravid would the new ball at Headingley: straight bat, leave, straight bat.

No one’s asked if they’ve hired an astrologer for the season.

Tuesday evening

After which he adds, “My dream of making India a football nation is still alive.”

Stimac, who had earlier said he “didn’t come to India to lick a**es”, doesn’t take things lying down. He was subsequently issued a show cause notice by the AIFF “for making comments construed as a breach of agreement by his employers.”

Wednesday night

AIFF announce a revised squad for the Asian Games that bears almost no resemblance to the one they’d initially announced in August. Except for the one constant that is Sunil Chhetri.

Thursday evening

Chhetri – remember, he’s one of the three seniors in the Asian Games squad – gives a strange, atypical interview to the Hindustan Times where, among other things, he seems to run down to junior teammates. “I am going because my club wants me to though [BFC] coach Simon [Grayson] is not happy. And I cannot say no to playing for the country. But with no disrespect to anyone, I do not want to lose face.”

He says that due to a lack of preparation, it would be better to go with players who’ve played constantly with each other over the past year (which was the case with AIFF’s originally planned squad). “I don’t know when I last played with [defenders] Sumit Rathi or Narender Gahlot. It will be difficult for them and for me.”

For the record, Gahlot and Chhetri played together for India in 2019.

Thursday night

The Sports Ministry announces replacements to the list of participating athletes – including to the men’s football team. The five new names mentioned as replacements include Liston Colaco. But there’s added confusion because the men’s football team as listed out in the attached annexure is a mix of the teams announced on Wednesday and back in August.

The AIFF has no official update on either of these developments.

Friday morning

Nothing. Nobody’s really sure who’s going to the Asian Games.

Friday afternoon

Stimac releases a “culture manifesto” for the Indian men’s senior football team on his social media handles. The powerpoint presentation has the tricolour prominently in the background and 48 bullet points covering playing style, locker room rules and what a player commits to. There’s also a five-line motto.

It’s a little unclear why this isn’t just an internal email.

Friday night

The AIFF announce that Sandesh Jhingan, Chinglensana Singh and Lalchungnunga are in the squad that will go. None of these three were among the five names mentioned in the sports ministry circular. Less than half an hour later, the ISL announces that the game between FC Goa and Hyderabad FC scheduled for September 22 has been indefinitely postponed. Coincidentally, Chinglensana plays for Hyderabad and Jhingan for Goa.

On the upside, this means that Chhetri now has two centre-backs he’s played with often.

Oh, and next Tuesday evening

India will start their men’s football Asian Games campaign against China. Kickoff is at 5:00 PM IST.


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