Asian Games football: Can clubs stop their players from national duty?

Sunil Chhetri’s presence in the squad as captain is the lone saving grace for the AIFF, as president Kalyan Chaubey admits it’s been ‘a great balancing act’

Sunil Chhetri at the Asian Games football (photo courtesy All India Football Federation)
Sunil Chhetri at the Asian Games football (photo courtesy All India Football Federation)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

When the Indian men’s football squad for the Asian Games was named after much drama late on the evening of Wednesday, 13 September, it was apparent that the leading clubs of the country have had their way.

The only redeeming feature in the 17-member squad is the presence of talismanic skipper Sunil Chhetri, who will be leading an inexperienced squad in his last continental games.

The composition of the Hangzhou-bound squad has been a bone of contention between the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and the Indian Super League (ISL) clubs for the past few weeks. The latter have been refusing to release some of the key players, as the first two weeks of ISL are clashing with the multi-discipline Games. The fact that Asian Games is not a part of the Fifa window, where the clubs have an obligation to release players on national duty, have only strengthened the clubs’ case. 

Incidentally, Igor Stimac — the head coach in the eye of the storm — was not at the helm of an essentially junior squad (Asian Games rules call for a Under-23 team with only three seniors).

An unprecedented heavy schedule for the Indian senior team — which sees them playing the Merdeka Cup, the FIFA World Cup qualifiers and the prestigious Asian Cup finals in Doha early next year — certainly puts the presence of the likes of Chhetri, Sandesh Jhingan or first-choice goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu at a premium. 

The final 'resolution' to the stand-off between the clubs and the Federation is certain to leave the AIFF red-faced. President Kalyan Chaubey lobbied with the Union sports ministry for clearance of the men’s team for the Games despite not meeting the eligibility criterion — but is now forced to settle for less than the best available resources.

This, however, begs the question: Can the clubs actually prevent players from doing their duty by the nation? 

Ever since the footballing ecosystem started leaning heavily towards club football since the 1990s, the club-versus-country conundrum has haunted the game at the global level too.

A look at FIFA’s rulebook shows there are 11 principles for managing the issue of national team call-ups under Annex 1 of the Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players. Principle 1.1 says:

Clubs are obliged to release their registered players to the representative teams of the country for which the player is eligible to play on the basis of his nationality if they are called up by the association concerned. Any agreement between a player and a club to the contrary is prohibited.
Principle 1.1, Annex 1, Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players, FIFA

However, such a clause is not binding outside of specific international windows, and clubs do not have to release players for more than one major senior international tournament in a year.

When disputes between clubs, players and national teams rise, they are heard and then ruled by the FIFA Players’ Status Committee. 

Incidentally, Chaubey had requested the Indian Super League to postpone the start of its season by 10 days from the scheduled 21 September, but was turned down.

A somewhat defensive AIFF president said in a statement while announcing the Asian Games team: 'There were situations which were unavoidable and demanded a great balancing act. It was not easy, but at the same time, I must reach out to FSDL and the clubs, thanking them for making it possible.

'The Indian national team is going to the Asian Games after a nine-year gap and it has become possible because of the active support Indian football received from the Indian government and particularly the sports ministry.' 

India’s group games are against China (September 19), Bangladesh (September 21) and Myanmar (September 24). It will be interesting to see if the rookies can make Chhetri’s last bow at the Games an impressive one — with or without Stimac! 

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