A crucial year for Indian football – one in which the national team excelled at home in the SAFF Cup after a month’s camp with coach Igor Stimac and his staff – has suddenly seen a raging club vs country debate and scheduling conflicts in the lead-up to the Asian Games, laying bare the challenges faced by the footballing ecosystem in the country.
A prolonged camp – a rarity for coach Stimac – resulted in an impressive run of results that raised hopes in Indian footballing circles. But it wasn’t just the results, but the in-game fitness displayed by players who were averaging over 12 kilometres run per game, playing pressing football high up the pitch, often outplaying teams traditionally considered better and ranked higher than India.
This uptick in performance was considered an opportunity to send the U-23 squad to the Asian Games, along with three seniors in goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, captain Sunil Chhetri and defender Sandesh Jhingan.
Was the Asian Games part of the Indian football calendar?
Each year, the AIFF consults all stakeholders in the footballing community before finalising the calendar. It is supposed to mark all domestic and national tournaments that clubs and the country are supposed to be part of. Not ranked as per the Sports Authority of India’s policy of being among the top eight in Asia to be eligible to send a team, the calendar was made without the Asian Games as a competition to be participated in.
Simply, the performance of the team and the opportunity to build on that performance by bringing the band back together in Hangzhou. It was seen as a win-win situation for the AIFF and the players. But the calendar is made before the season starts for a reason.
Where does the Indian Super League figure in all this?
The Indian Super League is India’s premier domestic football tournament, consisting of 11 teams in a closed format and runs from September to just before the Indian Premier League. This year, the first few weeks of the ISL clash with the dates for the Asian Games football competition.
Who has the upper hand in such situations?
In a club-vs-country debate, usually the clubs hold the cards. That is the structure upon which FIFA has built its international window system. The Asian Games does not come under a FIFA international window and therefore clubs are under no obligation to release their players for it. Furthermore, when the AIFF released the names of players for the Asian Games, they had not taken permission from clubs nor informed or requested them for the same. This was confirmed to The Indian Express by two different clubs.
The AIFF later resorted to saying that clubs should release their best players ahead of the start of not just the ISL season, but also the Asian Champions League for Mumbai City FC keeping ‘national interest in mind’.
Is there merit in the ‘national interest’ argument?
Every time Stimac has been given a long camp with the players, there has been an uptick in performance and player fitness – both of which have led to better results.
For many reasons, the fitness of a football player playing for a domestic club in India isn’t good enough for international football. A closed league coupled with teams based around better foreign players can be touted as reasons, as players fail to join the national camp in peak match fitness. When a player from a club goes to play for the country during a FIFA international window, especially in European leagues where club structures are strict in their fitness demands, there aren’t too many concerns regarding his fitness.
How did the clubs respond?
Until the end of the King’s Cup in Thailand, the AIFF was frantically trying to confirm a list of players that would be flying to Hangzhou to be a part of the Asian Games. There was a delay in the return of nine national team players while these negotiations were on and eventually the players returned to India after much furore over them not being released for club duty at the earliest.
This was followed by Mohun Bagan finding out that Ashique Kuruniyan, a player with the national team, suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury while in Thailand – a piece of information that wasn’t provided to them for five days.
“For five days, they neglected his injury and didn’t even conduct an MRI. This is not something we’d expect from a Team India physio,” a Mohun Bagan official told PTI. “If they had performed an MRI, we could have started physiotherapy earlier and minimised the extent of the injury. In light of this episode, there is absolutely no consideration of releasing our players for the Asian Games,” he said.
What is the status of the Asian Games squad?
The AIFF will attempt to convince clubs to release as many of their players from the national pool of 50 as possible. This will not be anywhere near a full-strength squad – and keep in mind one of the reasons for India wanting to go for the Asian Games was to give the best players of the national team more time with Stimac and his coaches.