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Conflict of interest? Bhaichung Bhutia's multiple roles in Indian football raise eyebrows

Bhargab Sarmah | Updated on: 7 December 2015, 13:40 IST
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  • From being the face of Indian football, with a highly impressive fan following, to being graced with the Padma Shri, Bhaichung Bhutia has seen and done it all.
  • However, he now finds himself in the eye of a controversy following his appointment as an advisor to the All Indian Football Federation (AIFF).
  • With Bhutia already occupying other important positions in the domestic game, is there a case of conflict of interest against him?

He mesmerised Indian football fans with some phenomenal performances on the field. A generation of Indians grew up idolising him. For many years, he has been the face of Indian football. In 2008, he was accorded the Padma Shri for his contribution to Indian football.

However, Bhaichung Bhutia's recent foray into football administration has been far from spectacular. The former East Bengal and Mohun Bagan hero has waded his way into controversy after taking over multiple roles in the domestic game, some of which raise serious questions about conflict of interest.

The background

This October, Bhaichung was appointed as Advisor to the All India Football Federation (AIFF). The appointment came a little over two-and-a-half years after the former Indian national team skipper was appointed as the chairman of AIFF's technical committee.

As the head of the technical committee, Bhutia had played a key role in the appointment of Stephen Constantine as the head coach of the Indian national team earlier this year. With the AIFF top-brass unsure of the next coach following the departure of Wim Koevermans, the technical committee's support for Constantine proved critical in the latter being hired as the head coach.

While the legendary Sikkim-born footballer has become an important figure in the AIFF boardroom, especially following his appointment as an advisor, the contention with his roles at the governing body arise from the fact that he is already a consultant with the Indian Super League franchise, Atletico de Kolkata.

Apart from these roles, Bhaichung Bhutia is also the founding President of the Football Players' Association of India (FPAI), and is listed as a Director at the player management agency, 'The Football Edge'.

The 38-year old former footballer also owns the semi-professional football outfit United Sikkim FC, which used to be full-fledged professional football club, before financial distress forced it to partially close down operations last year.

The two positions of conflict

Bhaichung Bhutia. Photo: AIFF Media

So is there indeed a case of 'conflict of interest' here? There is still a lack of clarity about Bhutia's duties and responsibilities as an advisor to AIFF.

Praful Patel, president of the governing body, recently tweeted that Bhutia would be advising the body and the president on 'overall issues of the game and the federation'.

If the former footballer is indeed advising the body on all the major issues related to the domestic game, then this indeed looks like a case of conflict of interest.

On one hand, Bhutia has vested interest in the ISL, and on another hand, he is expected to advise the AIFF top-brass on matters which may affect both the I-League and the ISL.

Why the I-League clubs won't trust Bhutia

Not many will admit it openly, but Indian football today faces the biggest crisis in its history. Professional football clubs are either shutting down operations, or pulling out of the I-League because of the absence of a revenue structure in Indian league football.

The Indian Super League has made matters worse for top-flight clubs in the country, who have had to make do with a shorter and more tightly-scheduled I-League season. This has led to calls from various quarters for a merger between the two tournaments.

With the AIFF finally meeting different stakeholders of the domestic game to chart out a plan for a merger, Bhaichung Bhutia's stand on the issue is going to be critical in the near future. However, his recent statements on a possible merger are likely to cause more concern among I-League clubs.

The former Indian skipper has admitted that he does not want the merger of the two competitions in the foreseeable future. His opinion mirrors that of quite a few ISL franchises, most of whom are reluctant in shifting to a full-fledged league season.

In such a scenario, can I-League clubs trust a man, who clearly has his allegiance with the ISL, to make decisions in their favour?

Past cases of conflict of interest at AIFF

Praful Patel. Photo: Wikipedia

While Bhaichung Bhutia's appointment as advisor to AIFF has raised many questions, it hardly comes as a surprise to the followers of the Indian game. The governing body has had its run-ins with conflict of interest in the past.

For instance, Larsing Ming Sawyan and Shrinivas Dempo, who own Shillong Lajong and Dempo SC respectively, are both vice-presidents at the governing body. While Lajong ply their trade in the I-League, former national champions Dempo were only recently relegated from the top-flight. Moreover, Shrinivas Dempo also co-owns ISL franchise FC Goa.

Last year, Utsav Parekh, father-in-law of AIFF President Praful Patel's daughter Niyati, acquired stakes in ISL outfit Atletico de Kolkata. In 2011, the board president vetoed the National Sports Bill, while being a union cabinet minister himself, which proved crucial in the Bill not getting passed.

In the case of Bhaichung Bhutia, it still remains to be seen as to how critical a role he plays in the next few years in administrative affairs relating to Indian football. However, the entire episode has left Indian football fans with a bad taste in the mouth.

First published: 7 December 2015, 13:40 IST
 
Bhargab Sarmah @BhargabSarmah

An avid fan of the beautiful game since his childhood, Bhargab has been writing about football in India for the last three years. He supports I-League club Shillong Lajong, as well as English giants Manchester United. Having recently graduated with a degree in commerce, he now writes about football and other sports at Catch.

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