It should have been a fairy tale story. On Monday, a team from one of India’s smallest State associations – the tiny Union Territory of the Dadra and Nagar Haveli – won the U-17 women's national championships. Over the course of the tournament, it had beaten heavyweights like Kerala and Maharashtra before picking up a 1-0 win against Bihar to win the tournament.
Ahead of the final in Guwahati, Ravi Kumar Punia, the coach of the Dadra and Nagar Haveli team, spoke about the association's plans. “The state association is really doing well. After this tournament they will really work on these girls especially at the grassroots,” Punia said ahead of the final against Bihar. “Grassroot football is important for development of football. State association of D and H (Dadra and Nagar Haveli) is really working well in the grassroots,” Punia said in a video interview that was tweeted by the AIFF handle.
There was just one problem. For all of Punia’s praise of the state association’s grassroots work, none of the girls from the Dadra and Nagar Haveli team were from the union territory.
According to player registration documents seen by Sportstar , of the 20 members of the State team, 17 are from Haryana and another three from Delhi.
None of this is proof of any wrongdoing. In a loophole, exploited by State associations, players from Haryana and Delhi who were registered to clubs in those two States were simply given a no objection certificate by their club and the State association. They were then registered to a club in Dadra and Nagar Haveli in boilerplate contracts lasting as little as a week and at most four weeks. The girls by registering with a State club were then allowed to represent the State. With no domicile status needed to represent State teams, they are then able to represent their adopted State without an issue. In this case, the players represented the union territory for the duration of the month in which the tournament was conducted. Now as former members of a national champion side, they are free to join any other club or return to their State.
This is a common practice. Some clubs take pride in announcing their players who have been selected for other States. “It gives us immense pleasure to share that eleven players of Growing Stars Sports Club have been selected for Under-17 Girls Nationals from various states,” read a post by New Delhi’s Growing Stars Sports Club.
The same post then listed names of five girls who had been selected for the Dadra and Nagar Haveli team.
Incidentally, all player representing the Dadra and Nagar Haveli team were registered with the Red Devils Football Club. The club president is Nevelle Quintal, also the secretary of the Dadra and Nagar Haveli Association. “I do not want to comment about this,” Quintal said when asked by Sportstar to explain why every player in the U-17 national championship team was from outside the union territory.
According to a member of a State club, who did not wish to be named, the union territory has not organised a State-level tournament since it came into existence in 2018. None of the girls who represented the union territory played any local matches since none have been conducted.
“We have nothing against girls from Haryana but at least we should have some local tournaments organised here. Our clubs must compete in tournaments outside Dadra and Nagar Haveli because we don’t have any tournaments conducted here,” he said.
According to a member of the AIFF competition's committee, who spoke anonymously, there were a few red faces after it came to light that not a single member of the Dadra and Nagar team belonged to the union territory. "Ideally we would want players to at least play in their chosen State for a year before being allowed to represent them. Hopefully, it is something that is implemented next year," the official said.
According to Shaji Prabhakaran, the president of the Delhi State Association, while there was certainly a case of a loophole being exploited, there was at least some benefit for the players. “The thing that’s obvious is that Haryana has so much talent that players from that State must represent other States. They have enough players to fill up two teams. In a way it is good that at least these girls who were otherwise not picked for the Haryana State got a chance to compete,” he says.
In a bit of irony, while the girls from what was essentially a second-string Haryana team won the national championship, the State team that didn’t pick them lost in the semi-finals, going down 3-1 to Bihar.