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Following what could be dubbed as a major setback in Indian Football, Debjit Lahiri analyses how although a "punishment" was needed, the verdict defies any sort of common logic..

 Debjit Lahiri
 Analysis | India
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The romanticism and heritage surrounding the Kolkata derby could match any of world's most decorated footballing rivalries over the years - and yet could equally turn its volatile and ugly head on the slightest of provocations. For a nation that ranks way down the pecking order in football - boasting of a footballing rivalry as massive as this - is certainly refreshingly uncharacteristic - yet on 9th of December 2012, the so called "national pride" did not take long to transform itself into a "national disgrace".

And as it has now turned out, the football in the country is all but set to suffer a long term blot in its distinguished history. For those who were buried under the rock all this while, the first Kolkata derby of this year's I-League saw a jam packed Salt-Lake stadium welcome its players as they came out to fight for the bragging rights for the season.

A little over the 43rd minute, East Bengal shot into the lead following a composed header from Harmanjot Khabra. Seconds later Mohun Bagan's star talisman Okolie Odafa was given marching orders for dissent and this coupled by some unnecessary sarcastic applauds from few of the East Bengal players, saw the highly charged up game, snowball into madness as the volatile Mohun Bagan crowd lost its cool and started hurling missiles into the field - one of which hit Mohun Bagan and India left back Syed Rahim Nabi.

Following the injury, the Mohun Bagan contingent played for a minute or so to complete the half but refused to take the field after the break and despite the referee's insistence to carry on with the game, the Mariners pulled out of the match.

Three weeks later, the I-League core committee of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) endorsed the decision of Justice AK Ganguly as the judge concluded that Mohun Bagan's decision to not play the second half of the Kolkata derby against East Bengal at the Yuba Bharati Stadium on December 9 could not be supported on the grounds of force majeure (a clause that allows exception in case of interference from a "superior force" or on event of an unavoidable circumstance).

Therefore, having then breached the Regulation 22(c) of I-League, Mohun Bagan was suspended for the current season as well as barred from taking part in the next two editions of the I-League.

The decision was thus, pretty straight forward and right out of the rule book, where AIFF had no other options but to apply the written punishment in case of occurrence of an event like this. One can presume that the AIFF had their hands tied; and there was nothing they could do to help the situation, or did they?

Well, let us for a while assume that the condition of 'force majeure' couldn't have been applied on this ground (Because this was the only part of the decision which was under the discretion of the select committee members; and Mohun Bagan might have had a case to counter-argue; given that it was their player who was injured afterall and they might have indeed been feeling uncomfortable to continue), does the rule by itself - banning a team for 2 and a half years for an offence of this nature, justified? Do we have a case where AIFF themselves might need to amend the regulations made by them? A comparative study on this regard might just be helpful.

In May 2006, the Italian police uncovered the infamous "Calciopoli scandal", implicating league champions Juventus, and other major teams including AC Milan, Fiorentina, Lazio, and Reggina when a number of telephone interceptions showed a thick network of relations between team managers and referee organisations. Juventus were the champions of Serie A at the time and the teams were caught rigging games by selecting favourable referees. In the aftermath of the scandal, Juventus, the primary accused, were stripped of their title and were relegated to Serie B where as clubs such as AC Milan and Fiorentina were subjected to heavy point deductions; along with the monetary penalties.

Now, the Calciopoli and the Kolkata derby fiasco might well be two very different issues but by mere common sense, one can easily come to a conclusion that an offence of match fixing is far more disgraceful and serious than pulling out of a match citing reasons of safety (which was obviously some-what debatable; and of course ruled out by AIFF in their verdict) . However even then, the Italian board declared a verdict which not only managed to send out a strong message to the clubs and set an example for the future but at the same time kept in mind the interest of football and the fans in the country by allowing the convicted clubs to redeem themselves immediately and not simply putting a ban on them from playing football. Thus, helping the teams with an "oxygen mask" to survive the darkest of hours and provide them with a scope to bounce back for the right footballing reasons.

One can't help but feel how a similar approach by the AIFF would have caused any harm. Mohun Bagan, in all probability, will survive the two years, given its loyal fan base and their participation in the fairly high-profile local leagues and cups. But consider the situation for a smaller team. Going by the rule book, and banning a smaller club, on similar grounds, could and in the most likely situation will lead to the club being closed down. And at such a critical juncture of Indian football, can we afford yet another disbandment of a footballing organization? Well, least said, the better!

                     Could It Have Been Handled The Calciopoli Way                                             

Our counterparts from Iran share similar sentiments. Goal.com Iran's Behnam Jafarzadeh points out three very similar incidents in the Iranian League over the past decade.

"In 2003, Shamooshak were ahead by three goals until the 65th minute against Esteghlal Ahvaz but the latter complained of refereeing decisions going against them and left the pitch in protest. Again in 2005, it was Shamooshak themselves who would resort to a similar action. The manager ordered the players to leave the pitch after a penalty was awarded against them in a match against Bhargh-e-Shiraz. And three seasons back, the president of Traktur Sazi, angered by the referee, ordered his players to leave the pitch against Abo Moslem. In all three instances however, according to the league regulations, the clubs were handed a 3-0 defeat and a hefty penalty ranging from $1200 to $2800. No sort of ban was issued."

Even in China, on 2nd October 2004, CSL side Beijing Guoan gave up their match against Shenyang Jinde (now Guangzhou R&F), following a penalty decision in the favour of the opponents. Again, however, the Chinese Football Association refrained from a total ban and instead announced a 3-0 defeat for Beijing Guoan and a heavy penalty of 300,000 RMB. So, in a way, they got their message out, yet closed down on a verdict that allows the convict some amount of leeway.

Coming closer to an even more related situation to the Mohun Bagan fiasco, we do not have to look back more than a year. The Dutch Cup tie between Ajax and AZ Alkmaar was stopped after just 38 minutes, after a man invaded the pitch and ran towards the Alkmaar goalkeeper Esteban, possibly in an intention to harm him. The Costa Rican responded by kicking the fan to the ground before stewards intervened. Referee Bas Nijhuis then sent off the 22 year-old, prompting a furious reaction on the AZ bench. Gutted by the decision and to an extent feeling uncomfortable about their safety, the AZ manager Gertjan Verbeek ordered his players to walk off the pitch, leaving the match to be abandoned.

A week later, the Dutch FA produced far more resolve than our own AIFF, as they took into account the "uncomfortable" circumstances surrounding the whole fiasco and ordered the game to be replayed behind closed doors. Esteban's red card was taken back and Ajax were themselves fined €10,000 separately for not able to prevent the pitch invasion. The fine, however, wouldn't have been applicable in our case, despite East Bengal being the home-team, as Mohun Bagan fans were the guilty party here.

The Dutch FA Showed Far More Resolve Than AIFF In The Alkmaar Walk Off Situation                

Now, one might argue that AIFF follows a similar rule as is in the books of the Asian Football Confederation(AFC) for their continental tournament - the Asian Champions League, where the penalty for withdrawal of a team in between the tournament or a match, would lead to a two year ban. However, one must understand the ACL is a luxury that a club can afford to miss for a couple of years and hence a longer length of ban or for that matter a ban itself is justified, BUT the same cannot be applied on their own "breeding ground", where a ban of such nature would spell doom for a football club. It does not require rocket science to decipher that. A rule must always be ascertained based on the greater good for football in the country - which certainly isn't the case if one bans a football club from not playing football at their own domestic league - the "survival pad" for every club - for a offence such as this!

Let's now move on to a different angle. Provided the rule and the "stated" punishment for such offence is justified, could the verdict have still differed from what has been declared?

March 16th 2002 saw a unique case of abandonment in the English First Division fixture between Sheffield United and West Bromwich Albion, after what became later known as the 'Battle of Bramall Lane'. After merely 9 minutes, Sheffield United's keeper Simon Tracey was sent off for handling the ball outside the penalty area. United manager Neil Warnock used his first substitution by replacing an outfield player with the substitute goalkeeper. Warnock later used his second and third substitutions and amazingly one of those, George Santos, was sent off in the 65th minute for a foul on Andy Johnson while the other sub, Patrick Suffo, received his marching orders in the skirmish that followed the Santos sending off. That left United with 8 players and no substitutions left. So when Michael Brown had to leave the pitch with an injury in the 80th minute and Robert Ullathorne followed him a couple of minutes later for the same reason, it left Sheffield United with just 6 players. The minimum number a team must have is 7 players, so referee Eddie Wolstenholme had no option but to abandon the game in the 82nd minute with the visitors leading 3-0.

Now from the things that transpired, there was an apparent indication towards a very "explainable" accusation - the Sheffield United players perhaps had faked both the injuries late in the game, in order to abandon a match which they were certainly losing, and forcing the match to a replay (Brown was later ruled out for the rest of the season due to the injury sustained during this match). However again, it was absolutely impossible to determine whether they had indeed faked during the time or whether they had a clean case. And understandably, the FA investigation board couldn't find any proper evidence to reach an exact decision.

So, in a case of 50-50, the FA, not by simply blurting out the rule-book and ordering for a replay, sounded out an intermediate verdict which made a lot of sense - Bypassing the rule of replay, they made the result stand in favour of West Brom and issued a fine against Sheffield but they did not charge them of having faked the injuries. So, in a way, both the teams weren't harshly done by and although the verdict may sound dubious it kept in mind the interest of both parties, in a situation where you cannot clearly determine the side with the upper hand.

'The Battle of Bramall Lane' Was Solved By A Verdict That Was Not Straight From The Rule Book, But Was One Which Sounded 'Sensible' In A 50-50 Situation.

Likewise in this case, one can say that the situation was similarly very much 50-50. A Mohun Bagan player was hurt and they had every reason to feel unsafe to continue. But again, would they have come to this decision, had it been them who were leading and not East Bengal? Perhaps not, but it is all again very hypothetical and you can't really say anything for certain.

So, could the AIFF had gone for a similar sensible verdict? One can only wonder. It's okay to rigidly follow what there is on the rule-book, but it is at times imperative to analyse the pros and cons and strike a perfect balance between them.

For a league that is starving for popularity, does banning one of the most followed teams in the country with arguably one of the biggest fan base, make any logical sense? Does the ban do more harm to Indian football than good? Again something to ponder upon.

In Delhi, the AIFF secretary general Kushal Das said there was no other option to ensure that I-League remains a serious affair.

"From an emotional point of view, the AIFF is extremely saddened at the decision. But rules are rules. They are not newly laid rules and all clubs had agreed to the rules before participating in the league. We cannot make any exceptions," - Das said.

TRUE, the Regulation 22 was also informed to the officials at half-time. So YES, Mohun Bagan brought it upon themselves. And YES, they deserved a punishment. YES, AIFF needed to send a strong message. But at the cost of banning a football team from not playing league football for the next two years? At the cost of eliminating a last ounce of charm in Indian Football, in the form of the Kolkata derby. Simply do not make the proper sense!

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