On Monday, the AIFF announced, in a major policy shift, that they would be withdrawing from the bid to host the 2027 AFC Asian Cup. Along with the announcement were statements from the new head honchos at AIFF.
President Kalyan Chaubey said: "India has always been a wonderful and efficient host to big tournaments, which was amply demonstrated in the recently concluded FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup. However, the EC (Executive Committee) has decided that the overall strategy of the Federation currently remains on focusing on the fundamental goals to strengthen our football at every level from grassroots to youth development."
"At the same time, we must also strengthen our stakeholders, especially the State Associations and work closely with the clubs to bring about a change in every aspect of football at the domestic level. All such aspects will truly be implemented when the Roadmap is announced later this month."
Secretary General Dr. Shaji Prabhakaran said: "Our strategy is very simple. We must focus on developing the game on a priority basis, before planning to host major international competitions. Hosting competitions requires big resources and sometimes encourages the tendency to take the major issues away from our focus. Right now, our focus should be to take Indian Football forward together."
So, in a line -- stop thinking about hosting big-name events for the glitz of it, and get down to the brass tacks. Perhaps the signing of a MoU with the other bidder for the tournament, Saudi Arabia, was just a happy coincidence.
Whatever the reasons, though, and taken at face value, this is one of the most important (and positive) developments in Indian football in many a year.
Those involved with Indian football, from head coaches of the national team to independent observers have constantly commented on how such a policy shift is an absolute must. As Ivan Vukomanovic, coach of the ISL team, Kerala Blasters, told ESPN earlier this year -- you don't focus on the ceiling of the house without first working on its foundations. The foundations of Indian football haven't been strong for a while now.
During campaigning for the AIFF presidential elections, India national team legend Bhaichung Bhutia had said it was time to focus on getting India in World Cups by virtue of qualifying and not by hosting them. In his first speech after election, Chaubey himself had said something similar, saying he wasn't here to "sell dreams" and that the focus would be on the bottom of the pyramid.
In recent times, the focus firmly has been on a top-down, trickle-down kind of approach. As part of this, India has hosted three major events in the past decade: the FIFA U-17 Men's World Cup in 2017, the AFC Women's Asian Cup in 2021 and the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup in 2022. There have been a few trickle-down effects from the first of those events - many of the boys who played in 2017 are fundamental parts of big clubs across the country -- but that's concentrated on that particular batch. And even when expanded, on just the national team set-up across age-groups. Other than this particular silo, and the fact that some stadia in the country were brought up to FIFA-standards of security and seating, how have the hosting of events helped address the basic issues that plague the sport in this country?
For that a far more grounded approach is needed, one where key stakeholders are spoken to and heard, and the focus is very much on the buzzword that is 'grassroots'. The first step towards this is accepting that this is where the fundamental issue lies -- the words spoken, and the first steps taken, by the new administration seem to indicate that the decision-making figures have finally taken cognizance of this basic fact. They also seem to be addressing, or at least listening to, stakeholders from across the board - the ISL, the I-League, the second division, the state associations. For a federation that didn't even pretend to do this, it's a considerable shift.
Now, those interested in Indian sports have been taken down the sweet roads of promise far too often for this statement, as big as it is, to be heralded as a harbinger of revolution, but first steps have to be taken somewhere. And on the face of it, there's reason to be (very) cautiously optimistic.
On that note, perhaps the reason the Federation is taking so long to come out with their first major strategy statement -- the 100-day plan they announced they'd be making -- is that they are giving it due consideration, taking stakeholder-consultation into consideration. After all it's easy to list out goals for the sake of it, without the will to follow-up with the action necessary to bring those words to reality. Perhaps. One can but hope, eh?