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 from former East Bengal teammates Bhaichung Bhutia and Kalyan Chaubey will be chosen on Friday by AIFF’s 34 eligible voters.
Founder of the Hamro Sikkim Party, Bhutia was India’s most decorated international before Sunil Chhetri. The former India captain has a stadium named after him, was the first in independent India to play in Europe, the first player East Bengal loaned abroad for a fee, the first to get the Padma Shri while still a player, the first president of an Indian footballers’ body and is the only Indian in Asian Football Hall of Fame.
Bhutia also runs a football schools’ franchise — in an interview, he has said he would give it up if needed— and has held a number of positions in the AIFF including heading the technical committee from 2013 to 2017. During that time the senior men’s team got Stephen Constantine back as head coach and moved from 154 to 105 in the FIFA rankings. He has also been an advisor to former AIFF president Praful Patel.
Though he has represented Kolkata’s top clubs, 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 in the India squad but never played an international. He was briefly involved in a football school at Mohun Bagan but has never held an administrative post in football.
Yet, according to officials at AIFF’s affiliates, the shot-stopper is the odds-on favourite to beat the striker. “That’s because this election is really not about Kalyan or Bhaichung,” said a state association president.
“It is about the majority of state associations sticking together for nearly one year to ensure that everything connected to the old regime was removed because things were rotting. And Kalyan has the backing of this group,” said the president requesting anonymity given the sensitive nature of the issue.
That could explain why Chaubey and Bhutia have run dramatically different campaigns. The goalkeeper has largely avoided the media and, according to his backers, addressed the states collectively only twice. Bhutia has been available for interviews and has reached out to states individually and collectively. “Kalyan is a very good human being,” Bhutia has said before requesting that politics be kept out of this election.
That said, whoever wins will need state patronage in spades 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 is going to come from. AIFF gets ₹50 crore from its commercial partners but its annual budget is almost ₹80 crore. The difference is made up by government grants and FIFA, according to a federation official who did not want to be named.
Unless states have a proper football season; unless the game percolates to the districts… all talk of grassroots engagement will stay just that, talk.
Bhutia is right when he says the turmoil since 2020 when elections were not held — AIFF’s former officials counter that by saying they were awaiting instructions from the Supreme Court on the new constitution —has not helped football in India.
“For far too long, AIFF has had a top-down approach with a lot of loose talk like India will qualify for a men’s World Cup. Hopefully, the new committee will cut that out and have a leader who believes in building consensus. Building confidence in all stakeholders including fans, FIFA and AFC (Asian Football Confederation) is important,” said the state president quoted above.
That will be a major task facing the new office-bearers, of whom 14 executive committee members have been elected unopposed and six former internationals will be co-opted. Getting the constitution ready in conjunction with the Supreme Court will be another. Then they can look at leagues structures, short seasons and absence of enough clubs, coaches and players in the system.