All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) centralised initiative to provide a medical support policy and grants to its players, technical staff and the referees in the wake of the raging COVID-19 pandemic was met with appreciation, as the country’s central football body said that it wanted to “formalise” the process of helping its past and present heroes, who have made the country proud through their contributions. 

The road to recovery is long but the healing has begun. As football in the country resumes again, AIFF General Secretary, Kushal Das speaks to Sportstar about the roadmap for the national team, refereeing in Indian football, mental health and says why 2022 will be a big year for women’s football.  

Was COVID-19 a catalyst for AIFF to introduce this medical support policy and grants for its players and staff? At a time, when we have seen international clubs, with heavy financial muscle indulge in pay-cuts, right from players to the technical staff, what was the thought process behind undertaking this initiative given the challenging circumstances? 

The AIFF values the immense contribution of the players who have brought laurels for the country. While AIFF has financially assisted players and staff even in the past on a case-to-case basis, we have now tried to formalise the process. We have henceforth, laid down a procedure wherein we are ready to help for the benefit of all our heroes, and their families.

We had also donated Rs. 25 lakhs to the PM Cares Fund in 2021 in wake of the pandemic – our small effort to pay back our country and stand together in the time of crisis to take it forward together.

Not to forget that we have also come up with a COVID-19 relief grant to support Category 1 and 2 active Referees, and Assistant Referees who have been adversely affected financially by the COVID-19 pandemic. This grant is a one-time financial assistance for match officials who are managed by the AIFF through their participation as officials in AIFF competitions.

We understand that the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the world especially the sports industry hard and the essential COVID safety protocols have resulted in a lack of sporting activities barring a few major professional events.

Over the past season, refereeing has not been at a standard and consistent level in the national leagues over the years. Is AIFF thinking of any ways to improving the standard of refereeing in national football? What is your take on the implementation of the Video Analysis Referee (VAR) in Indian football? When can we expect it?

In every development process, there are short, long and immediate achievable targets. With the guidance and expertise of the Professional Game Match Officials Board (PGMOL), there are also online/offline courses that are being conducted which includes practical sessions, evaluation, grading, and even individual coaching sessions.

Furthermore, the AIFF, in collaboration with FIFA, is conducting FIFA MA Courses for the Referees, Assistant Referees, and the referee assessors across India. Generally, these courses happen physically every year but owing to the pandemic situation, we have been doing them virtually off late. 

The courses help the supervisors to stay updated with the latest developments while improving their techniques on the thought process. Lack of local matches has been hampering a bit as a referee’s practical ability increases with officiating in an increased number of matches. Next season onwards ISL will have a minimum of 27 matches for each club as well as more matches in Hero I-League once the home and away format resumes.

VAR would be the future of refereeing and football. However, it’s an expensive affair and needs approval from FIFA. In a huge country like India, we need to take it step-by-step.

The Indian Women’s League hasn’t kicked off since February 2020. What can we expect for the women’s national team and the domestic league (IWL) in the current AIFF calendar year and beyond?

As you are aware that the Senior Women’s National team has already assembled in Jamshedpur since mid-August wherein, they have been training under Thomas Dennerby for the forthcoming AFC Women’s Asian Cup. That’s perhaps the sole ongoing training camp in India across all team sports [currently].

AIFF expects covid restrictions and quarantine rules to get flexible in different countries soon, and with requisite permissions landing from the Governments of the respective countries, the Women’s team will be travelling abroad for International Friendlies.

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In fact, the team is visiting UAE soon for 2 internationals with UAE and Tunisia followed by a trip to Bahrain and Sweden. There are also plans and talks for matches in November.

In addition, subject to the pandemic situation improving in India and with consent coming in from the Government of India, there are plans to host an international tournament for the Women’s team in India soon.

At the domestic level, the Senior National Championships are planned to be held in November; while a probable window for the IWL is March/April 2022 in Bhubaneswar. The Head Coach was very clear that it would not be prudent to allow National Team players to participate in IWL before the Asian Cup in 2022, and accordingly, it will be held after the Asian Cup.

AIFF general secretary Kushal Das with the Indian men’s national team. Photo: AIFF MEDIA

 

India goalkeeper Aditi Chauhan had previously spoken about more representation from ISL and I-League in the IWL. Do you think a marketed structure like the ISL is feasible for women’s football right now? Apart from academies and grassroots development, what is AIFF doing for women’s football to increase its visibility and marketability?

2022 will be a huge year for women’s football in India with the AFC Asian women’s cup as also the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup slated from October 2022. The legacy of the two tournaments will surely galvanise the Indian sociological context and develop a huge interest among girls, allowing them to play more.

The Indian Women’s League has provided a platform for aspiring girls to showcase their talent regularly. There will be a substantial increase in the number of matches and teams in the IWL but we need more. But we need involvement in women’s football from all stakeholders – it needs to be a joint effort. I urge all the clubs and State Associations to invest and take interest in women’s football. 

The ISL and I-League in 2020-21 were completed in secure bio-bubbles but the players have pointed out the taxing nature of the competitions played in a packed window of four months. Given the circumstances, can you shed light on your perspective of how important a role mental health plays in sport and when can we expect mental health awareness camps by AIFF in the near future and a permanent sports psychologist in the national team?

The AIFF had a sports psychologist on board for the FIFA U-17 World India 2017, and there have been sessions for other youth teams too. Sports psychology is an integral part of modern-day coaching wherein the Head Coach is equipped and deals with all mental aspects. We deal with it on a case-to-case basis and as per the requirement and requests of the technical staff, it will be taken forward together. 

The Indian Super League will undergo major changes next season. The number of Indian players on the pitch has been increased from six to seven with spots for foreigners decreased to four. Do you think teams, which have a strong base of national players will gain an upper hand as far as results are concerned? What is your general take on the move?

If you look at domestic league football over the years, there is a general tendency to believe that the foreign recruits are making all the difference. 

You need to revisit champion teams and teams which made an impact and you will find that they have always had a good bunch of quality Indian players. It’s not a new trend but has been prevalent since the 80s when foreign recruits started being roped in by Indian clubs.

An increased number of Indian players on the pitch pops up a position up for grabs. All of that will go on to benefit Indian Football when they play the AFC Club competitions, and surely the Blue Tigers.

AIFF general secretary Kushal Das. Photo: AIFF MEDIA

 

Qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup is the most pressing concern right now but the team registered just a single win in the qualification campaign. Where do you think our team is lacking currently and what is your take on the overall performance of the team?

Indian Football is currently undergoing a transition wherein we have had a mixed bag of results. If we achieved one of our greatest results in recent times – the away draw against invincible Asian champion Qatar, we were not able to sustain the same momentum and achieve consistency. 

At the moment the focus is on qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup China 2023. We finished the World Cup Qualifiers in the third spot and there has been a marked improvement in the manner of our play, the passes, tackles, chances created, goals conceded in comparison to prior. 

But we understand that we need to better ourselves on every given day and Head Coach Igor Stimac has been leading us. To be fair the pandemic hasn’t helped Stimac to prepare the team and we must give him more time as was unanimously accepted by the Technical Committee.

What was the collective thought process behind extending Igor Stimac’s contract till September 2022?

Stimac has been able to bring in a change in our playing philosophy and the current squad has a number of youth players with proven experience who are all set to establish their foothold in international football. 

The AIFF is leaving no stone unturned to provide exposure to the team – so much so that even during the pandemic we managed to play against Oman and UAE in Dubai in March. The trend will continue and we expect Stimac to instil consistency in the squad which will lead us to better results.

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