Will India play ball with FIFA?

Gameplan Hosting the Under-17 World Cup will give a big fillip to Indian football, Photo: Ishan Tankha

FIFTY-TWO matches, six to eight host cities and a dream for Indian football. All that keeps the country from a shot at hosting the Under-17 football World Cup in 2017 is not the lack of infrastructure, but legalities. Even as India tries to convince football’s governing body FIFA that existing laws would help meet their demands, failure to do that or submit specific guarantees by 1 March could mean losing out on hosting the event altogether.

During his visit last year, FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke had already warned that India would not get to host the World Cup if it failed to meet FIFA’s criteria. India has stadia good enough to hold the Under-17 World Cup and enough five-star hotels and adequate accommodation in each venue as demanded by FIFA to host athletes, coaches and other officials.

The only hitch is the Central government’s inability to offer guarantees to meet FIFA’s conditions. The main hurdle is that FIFA wants immediate guarantees on tax exemption, security, visa on arrival and unlimited inflow and outflow of foreign exchange in certain currencies.

The host cities listed by the All India Football Federation (AIFF), including Kolkata, Mumbai, New Delhi, Guwahati, Margao and Kochi, have not drawn objections from FIFA and are suited to hold the World Cup with some refurbishments.

Former India captain Bhaichung Bhutia sees the opportunity to host this tournament as a huge boost for the beautiful game. “Once you secure that, we will have development in Indian football in terms of better stadia and infrastructure. It will be a huge draw and definitely benefit the game,” he says.

But in order to have that opportunity, the Centre has to play ball with FIFA. “The Centre is actually not in a position to give those guarantees,” says AIFF General Secretary Kushal Das. “It is not easy to give unilateral guarantees on matters such as security, which is a state subject, and that too for something that will happen five years later. The Centre has to consider the different ruling parties in each state.”

Das insists that India has existing laws through which FIFA’s demands can be met, but only when the country bags the event. “For instance, the Foreign Exchange Management Act covers all the foreign exchange matters. For tax exemption, there’s a particular provision in the Income Tax Act under which you can apply and get exemptions, but this can be done only after the event is allotted to us,” he says.

Being unable to give the guarantees right away, the AIFF sent a letter to FIFA backed by legal opinion stating that the issues covered in the guarantees are also covered under various existing legislations and therefore could be resolved once India receives the bid. Unfortunately, FIFA’s legal team rejected the letter stating that regular procedure demands that the guarantees must be given in advance.

Last week, AIFF President Praful Patel met FIFA President Joseph Blatter and other top officials in Zurich to explain the issues, following which FIFA has agreed to meet AIFF’s legal team. This meeting is scheduled to take place on 5 or 6 February. Whether India secures or loses out on the chance to host the World Cup depends largely on this meeting and the submission of all necessary papers by the deadline, which Das says is 1 March. FIFA is then expected to take a call on the host nation in mid-March.

Until then, young footballers such as 18-year-old Sehej Singh, who has played at the national level, remain hopeful. “If the Under-17 World Cup comes to India, it will be truly inspiring for Indian youth,” he says. “With the AIFF academies in place, we can start training at an earlier age and hone talent here as opposed to the corporate tie-ups with foreign clubs which always see Indian talent going out.”

[email protected]