On a fine September afternoon in 1998, thousands of Kolkata residents flocked to the Vivekananda Yuva Bharati Krirangan. The occasion rightfully demanded a gigantic crowd, for it was the famous Kolkata Derby between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, and also the final of the 1998 Federation Cup.
Mohun Bagan ended up winning the match 2-1, and a couple of 21-year-old upcoming stars of East Bengal were placed under the scanner after the defeat. One of them was the goalkeeper, who was at fault for the second goal, while the other player was the striker, who missed a few chances.
Twenty-four years down the line, on another fine September afternoon, the duo will meet again. They have since traded boots for microphones, becoming eminent politicians. The former goalkeeper, Kalyan Chaubey, will go head-to-head against his ex-teammate, the erstwhile young striker called Bhaichung Bhutia, in the AIFF Presidential elections on 2 September.
The developments might spark déjà vu, except that there will be one noticeable difference – one of them will come first this time around, whilst the other will remain second.
Former teammates at East Bengal, Bhutia and Chaubey will compete in a two-horse contest to become the next AIFF president. Though the scales are tipped in the latter's favour, fans of Bhutia can find solace in the fact that they have a contest at their hands, which did not seem like a possibility a week ago.
Political Angle Not Working in Bhaichung Bhutia's Favour
Both associations were initially expected to side with Chaubey, but a very late twist saw Bhutia entering the fray. Since then, the 'Sikkimese Sniper' has relentlessly tried convincing everyone why he is the ideal candidate to lead AIFF in the coming years.
Bhutia knows very well that he is waging a lone battle against a very stern opposition. Unlike a game of football, an election prioritises political affinity over football ability. While Bhutia is the leader of the Hamro Sikkim Party, a regional party in Sikkim, Kalyan Chaubey happens to be a member of the party ruling the nation – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
After his retirement as a player, he served many football associations and also contested the 2019 Lok Sabha election from the Krishnanagar Constituency, where he lost to Trinamool Congress' Mohua Moitra.
On 24 August – two days before the Indian fans celebrated the revocation of All India Football Federation's (AIFF) suspension by FIFA – Chaubey's panel might have celebrated a premature end to the elections.
Reports of the former goalkeeper winning the elections uncontested started doing the rounds as Bhutia's nomination as an eminent ex-footballer fell through after the former footballers' representation in the electoral college was scrapped.
Yet, on 25 August, Bhutia did what he has done time and again during his illustrious career – score a goal in the very last minute of the match. The 45-year-old filed a new nomination, not backed by the former footballers this time around, but by Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh's football associations.
The political angle does not work in the former striker's favour, and understandably, he has requested everyone to keep politics out of football. Speaking to The Quint, Bhutia claimed that his discussions with the state football associations have been fruitful.
"I have spoken to all the state associations and they have been very positive. All the associations have requested that I should come and help them technically, to get the structure right, and also help financially for the grassroots tournaments. So far, the response has been good. Let’s see tomorrow."Bhaichung Bhutia told The Quint
The ground reality, however, might portray a different picture. Thirty-four of the 36 state associations, barring Ladakh and Jammu & Kashmir, are eligible to vote in the election on 2 September, and out of those, 28 pledged support to Chaubey last week.
Bhutia's own state association, the Sikkim Football Association (SFA), has not backed his candidature. The Padma Shree awardee had previously hinted at the leaders of the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM) pressurising the SFA President, Menla Ethenpa, to vote against him. Interestingly, SKM happens to be a part of the National Democratic Alliance – the big-tent political alliance led by the BJP.
"I think it is unfortunate (the SFA not backing him) because it is important for Sikkim football to grow and we are a part of the family. Sometimes, you have certain individuals who don't really look into football but their personal interests, which is very unfortunate. But despite them not supporting me, if I become the president, I will help Sikkim football grow. I would definitely like to invest, to ensure there is good financial support for Sikkim football, which I don't think has happened so far."Bhaichung Bhutia
Bhutia’s Supporters Are Also in for a Stern Test
Besides him, Bhutia's supporters are also facing similar uphill battles in vice-president and treasurer's elections, as Chaubey's panel is confident of landslide victories in every category. Manvendra Singh of the Rajasthan FA, who broke out from the Chaubey group at the last minute to support Bhutia, is being touted as the underdog in his battle for the vice-president's post against Karnataka's NA Haris.
Another supporter of Bhutia, Andhra Pradesh's Gopalkrishna Kosaraju was involved in a bizarre series of events. Running for the treasurer's position, he had initially withdrawn his nomination before withdrawing his withdrawal. Despite the drama, he remains second-favourite against Arunachal Pradesh's Ajay Kipa.
Thirteen members of Chaubey's panel – GP Palguna, Avijit Paul, P Anilkumar, Valanka Natasha Alemao, Maloji Raje Chhatrapati, Menla Ethenpa, Mohan Lal, Arif Ali, K Neibou Sekhose, Lalnghinglova Hmar, Deepak Sharma, Vijay Bali, and Syed Imtiaz Husain – have been inducted into the executive committee unopposed.
A day prior to D-day, Bhutia is banking on his experience to work in his favour, as he proudly claims, "I think I am more experienced than Kalyan Chaubey." Perhaps he is, but Chaubey's political advantage makes him the clear favourite.
Yet, be it at a football organisation or a legislative assembly, elections tend to have room for surprises. Bhutia, Kalyan, and the Indian fans will need to wait only a bit longer to find out whether this election will have a surprise element, as AIFF braces itself to have a former footballer as the president for the first time in 85 years.