Growth of Indian football stunted by government interference in player eligibility

Published 26 July 2013 | Authored by: Kevin Carpenter

The eligibility of sports people born in one country to represent another country or national team has been a contentious issue across the vast majority of sports for time immemorial.  In modern times this has perhaps been most notable in cricket and rugby union.  

In the former there has been a proliferation of non-English born cricket players playing for the national team, Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott both born in South Africa to name but a few, and for many years in rugby union there has been murmurs of discontent about the fact that, for example, the New Zealand national team features a number of sizeable players, both in talent and stature, who were originally from the South Sea Islands (Tonga, Samoa etc.)  This has also been evident in the world’s most popular game football, where there are a number of players who were not born in the country which they now represent, for example Arsenal’s Lucas Podolski who was born in Poland but has represented Germany.  One particular eligibility quirk has recently been drawn to my attention involving the Indian national football team.

The governing body of football in India is the All India Football Federation (‘AIFF’). Despite having a population of over 1 billion people, at the time of this blog India sits at a lowly 146th in the FIFA world rankings out of its 209 national member associations.   Understandably the country is seen as an area of great potential for the sport, indeed there was a failed attempt to start an Indian Premier League style tournament in the country back in 2012.1

To raise the profile of football in the country the AIFF could turn to non-Indian born players to play for the national team who have played in higher profile leagues around the world such as the English Premier League. This is possible under Regulation 3 of the latest edition of the FIFA Statues from July 2012. This covers the scenarios where a player not born in the relevant national association may still represent the national team:

  1. [the player’s] biological mother or biological father was born on the territory of the relevant Association; or  
  2. [the player’s] grandmother or grandfather was born on the territory of the relevant Association; or
  3. [the player] has lived continuously on the territory of the relevant Association for at least five years after reaching the age of 18.

Therefore, you would think that a player born in England who has a mother born in India would be able to represent the Indian national football team, or at least be eligible for selection? 

If you thought the answer to this is yes then you would be wrong.  Whilst Regulation 3 does not state that a player has to acquire official citizenship or hold a passport for a particular country it does essentially reflect the notion of dual citizenship, this being where one person can hold passports for two different countries.  However, this is not possible in India.  They have no concept of dual citizenship; you can only obtain the status of a Person of Indian Origin (or PIO), which does not entitle you to an Indian passport.  Yet the Indian Government says that without an Indian passport you are not allowed to represent the national football team.2

Therefore, anybody who is not born in India is advised to obtain an Indian passport (relying on their heritage) and forego the one they already hold.  However as has been admitted by the General Secretary of the AIFF, if you are from the United Kingdom this is “something no man in his right mind would ever want to give up”.3 

Former Premier League footballer Michael Chopra found himself in this situation when he looked into playing international football.   His father was born in India and he applied to the AIFF to play for the national team given he had a valid PIO card, however, the AIFF were told in no uncertain terms by the Indian Government that he was not to represent the national team.  This ended Chopra’s dream of playing international football and also meant that the national team were missing out on the services of a player who had considerably greater experience (and skill) than the majority of the squad with which they had to pick from.  

Where does this leave players in the position of Chopra who wish to play for India (or other countries which do not have a dual nationality regime)?  The stance of the Indian Government unfortunately places the AIFF in direct contravention of the FIFA Statues, this being stated under Article 13, Section 1A of the General Provisions (Members’ obligations), “Members have the following obligations…to comply fully with the Statues, regulations, directives and decisions of FIFA bodies at any time.” What could FIFA do to change the situation?

FIFA has not been afraid in recent times to issue sanctions against its member associations for what it terms “government interference”.  Most recently the Cameroon Football Federation has been suspended by FIFA following the fallout from the elections for its President.4

Such a suspension can have wide ranging effects, with Cameroon club team Coton Sport not able to enter the group stages of the African Champion’s League.  The power to suspend a member nation for a failure to comply with the relevant FIFA rules is found in the Article 14 of the General Provisions.  If the member association suspended does not remedy the problem, then FIFA have the ultimate power to expel the member association from FIFA under Article 15.  

Ironically, this is not the first time that an Indian sport governing body has fallen foul of its international counterpart.  After the London 2012 Olympic Games the International Olympic Committee (‘IOC’) suspended the Indian Olympic Association (‘IOA’) in December 2012 due to reservations about the integrity of one of its senior administrators and its lack of belief that there was no governmental interference in the running and administration of the IOA.5

This is a somewhat unique issue in sports law, particularly football, and it remains to be seen if any other players step forward to test FIFA’s resolve in this regard because there is clearly no value in a non-Indian born player, who is not willing to give up his citizenship from the country of his birth, appealing to either the Indian Government or the AIFF to be considered for selection for the national team.  Therefore it remains to be seen if FIFA will take the same route as the IOC and have the strength to stand up to the Indian Government and tell them to relax their current policy and fall in line with the rules and regulations that the AIFF have agreed to by being members of FIFA.







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About the Author

Kevin Carpenter

Kevin Carpenter

Kevin is a advisor and member of the editorial board for LawInSport, having previously acted as editor. In his day-to-day work he has two roles: as the Principal for his own consultancy business Captivate Legal & Sports Solutions, and Special Counsel for Sports Integrity at leading global sports technology and data company Genius Sports.

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Comments (3)

  • James Kitching

    26 July 2013 at 14:22 | #

    (short version posted to Twitter)

    Sorry Kevin, your interpretation is incorrect.

    Article 6 of the FIFA Regulations Governing the Application of Statutes only applies to those who hold a passport which entitles them to play for more than one football 'nation' - eg a British passport entitling a player to play for the four 'home nations' and some Caribbean nations, or an American passport entitling a player to play for the USA, Guam, Puerto Rico (etc).

    The correct Article you want is Article 7, if a player is not entitled to a passport at birth. If they are, then Article 5 is applicable.

    Furthermore, you seem to have overlooked the residency requirements (2 years for Article 6, 5 years for Article 7) and the 'change of nationality' requirements (Article 8), which are strictly enforced by FIFA and the Confederations (especially for senior level players). Without knowing the full facts, Chopra may not even be eligible to switch to India having played for England youth teams at official tournaments, given their passport laws and when one 'acquires' Indian nationality.


  • James Kitching

    26 July 2013 at 14:30 | #

    sorry, re-read article and saw you mention Chopra has Indian parentage. regardless, you want either Article 5 (dual national at birth) or Article 7 (acquire nationality).


  • Kevin Carpenter

    26 July 2013 at 15:42 | #

    Hi James

    Thanks for your comments clarifying the interplay between different Articles within Regulation 3, it is now very clear (unlike the Regulations themselves).

    I was using Chopra as a generic example but there are instances of other players who satisfy FIFA's criteria to play for India, including residency, and have been wrongly denied the right to play.


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