EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: "India a cricket-watching but football-playing nation": Kalyan Chaubey

The first footballer to become president of the All India Football Federation (AIFF), Chaubey just completed his first year in office

AIFF president Kalyan Chaubey with Arsene Wenger in Sydney (photo courtesy All India Football Federation)
AIFF president Kalyan Chaubey with Arsene Wenger in Sydney (photo courtesy All India Football Federation)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

When Kalyan Chaubey became the first former footballer to become the president of All India Football Federation (AIFF) last year, there were enough scepticism about his credentials.

He routed no less than an iconic figure like Baichung Bhutia in a high-profile AGM — a fact which was attributed by many to his ‘right’ political connections.

As he completes one year in office on 2 September, the the 46-year-old former goalkeeper seems to have won the first round. There are now growing positive vibes about Indian football, ushered in largely by the national team’s back-to-back triumphs in the Intercontinental Cup and the SAFF Championship, along with a number of "small steps which seems to have worked", to quote Chaubey himself.

‘’It’s up to the football watching public of the country to decide on our performance, I am not going to grade it,’’ said Chaubey, when asked to rate his committee’s performance on a scale of 10.

Speaking to the National Herald in an exclusive interview while on a whistlestop visit to Kolkata, he said: ‘’As a goalkeeper, my job was to ensure that I don’t concede a goal for my team throughout (the) 90 minutes. If I managed to succeed at it, then again the idea was not to concede goals in the next 90 minutes — that’s how I plan to continue.’’

AIFF president Kalyan Chaubey is the first actual footballer to hold the position (photo courtesy AIFF)
AIFF president Kalyan Chaubey is the first actual footballer to hold the position (photo courtesy AIFF)

A nice analogy, this, for the AIFF president’s job can be a thankless one — given India’s drought of success at the international level for decades and the cosmetic changes often failing to show any growth curve.

‘’The biggest change that I have seen over the past year is that there is a positive outlook in people about football again. See, cricket may be the most popular sport here, but I feel that India are a cricket-watching but football-playing country. If even a 5–10 per cent of the youth population takes to the game because of this upswing, it can make a huge difference,’’ Chaubey said.

Driving home his point, he continued: ‘’We have won the SAFF Championships before also but it was almost a given that India would prevail against the neighbours (this time)."

‘’This time, we managed to convince the SAFF organising committee with great effort that despite not being members of the SAFF family, the introduction of two quality teams from the Gulf like Kuwait and Lebanon can raise the profile of the tournament.

"Hence, wins against them created a bigger impact among the fans, the mainstream and social media — something which we are used to seeing in cricket.

"Like this, we had taken a number of small steps which I feel can have some far-reaching consequences,’’ said Chaubey, who had donned the colours of some leading clubs of the country during his playing career, until he retired in 2010.

Looking ahead, one of the tricky challenges before Chaubey was to resolve the brewing club-versus-country crisis over the release of core national players to prepare for the FIFA World Cup qualifiers (from December) and Asian Cup in Doha (2024).

The marquee Indian Super League, a 12-team affair with the cream of India’s football talent plus overseas professionals, is scheduled to run from 15 October 2023 to 26 February 2024 — a period that clashes with vital international fixtures.

While Igor Stimac, India's high-profile Croatian head coach, insists there should be an intensive three-week national camp ahead of the major international fixtures, it’s a matter of conjecture whether Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL) will agree to suspend the ISL for such a period.

FSDL, the commercial partners of AIFF, is an arm of the Reliance Group formed to independently run the ISL.

‘’As long as I am the president of AIFF, I will not allow a collision between the two parties.

"At the end of the day, the clubs who employ the players are as much stakeholders of Indian football as the national federation, and all of us eventually have the well-being of Indian football at heart.

"I believe there is nothing that a dialogue can’t solve but both parties should be willing to give some leeway,’’ Chaubey observed.

Indian football team (photo courtesy AIFF)
Indian football team (photo courtesy AIFF)

‘’In the past, all the national team would have got to play were the FIFA World Cup qualifiers once in two years, where they would exit after first round.

"This season, we have eight tournaments lined up for our players to get the exposure — there was a tri-nation event in March in Manipur, then (the) Intercontinental Cup, (the) SAFF Championship, (the) Kings Cup, (the) Merdeka, (the) Asian Games (predominantly U-23), FIFA qualifiers and then Asian Cup 2023. Now, this has created an issue for windows for club tournaments, but I am confident of finding a solution,’’ the president said.

After assuming the AIFF president’s chair last September, Chaubey had struck a realistic note that he did not have a magic recipe for seeing India play the World Cup in a few years’ time.

Maintaining the refrain, he said: ‘’Yes, there is no magic recipe as development of football is a continuous process. First, we need to improve our rankings in Asia, forget the world, from the current No. 18 to 16, then 12, so that we get a more winnable group in FIFA events.

"It’s a matter of setting up small targets and working towards them — then we can certainly realise our dream,’’ Chaubey said.

Speaking of dreams, getting hold of Arsene Wenger, the former Arsenal manager, to set up a training academy in India as a joint AIFF and FIFA enterprise has been one coup Chaubey can certainly be proud of.

Incidentally, Chaubey has been wearing twin hats throughout 2023 — that of AIFF supremo and of interim CEO of the Indian Olympic Association, the umbrella sporting body of India. It’s a position that he has used well to his advantage to convince the Union sports ministry to clear the men's and women’s football teams for the Asiad, despite not meeting the selection criterion.

How challenging has it been to strike a balance between the two? ‘’I just try to handle each task at a time. All problems have a solution, but you have to strategise to solve it,’’ he signed off.

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Published: 02 Sep 2023, 5:13 PM