The Curious Case of Abinash Ruidas and the Identical Signatures

There are multiple parties in this story. There are contracts and legal judgements. There are emails. And then there are the versions and opinions of those involved: the Indian Football Association (IFA - West Bengal state football association), the AIFF (All India Football Federation), forensic experts, player agents, former players, Kingfisher East Bengal and finally the young winger Abinash Ruidas. There are allegations, and there is dirt. There are winners, and there are losers.

However, as we dive into investigating the details of this landmark case, it is important to keep an eye on the bigger picture: that it has probably changed the face of Indian football forever.

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As a young boy, Abinash Ruidas could not choose between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. Unlike the rest of his family, his mother liked the Mariners. So at Kolkata derbies, he enjoyed the sport more than the teams, the spectacle more than the rivalry. The dream, he says, was to play at the legendary Salt Lake Stadium; didn’t matter which of the football giants he suited up for.

He eventually did. For both.

Contrary to what most online sources cite, Ruidas was never at the Mohun Bagan youth academy. Instead, his career started in his hometown Budge Budge. From there he moved to Goa’s Dempo Sports Club before returning to West Bengal with Bhowanipore F. C.. Then came the first big break - signing with Mohun Bagan. That half of his dream was soured by him spending too much time on the sidelines. It is why he didn’t think twice when East Bengal (KEB) came calling, signing a one-year contract with the club for the 2014-15 season.

The start of Ruidas’ KEB career was promising. And although he never settled into a spot on the starting XI, an impressive first campaign was rewarded with a two-year contract extension from 2015-2017. The predominantly left-footed player scored, with his right foot, in a 1-0 win over Bengaluru FC in January 2016, his only goal for the club. The goal quickly forged a place for him in the hearts of fans who bleed the red and gold. It didn’t take long for the Indian Super League to come calling. His versatility on both wings of the field, and as a left-back was noticed by ISL side Atletico de Kolkata (ATK), who signed him on loan in 2016. That campaign ended with the club winning the title.

Now, having represented both Mohun Bagan and KEB, Ruidas had fulfilled his dream. Add to that the bonus of playing for a third Kolkata side, ATK; Ruidas was riding high.

He had barely turned 23.

The contract extension he signed with KEB was to end with the 2016-17 season. Maybe, he thought, it was time to move; the 2017 ISL draft was around the corner (in July). But maybe, just maybe, he would like to stick around.

“At this point, I was linked with Mohun Bagan in some Bengali newspapers,” Ruidas said.

“After the Federation Cup in Cuttack, East Bengal asked me to extend my stay at the club. I told them that I needed time to think about it. They would call me almost every other day and ask me to sign a new contract. I kept telling them I needed to discuss my next move with my family. Then they told me pointedly one day: ‘Are you going to sign for another club? Jidhar marzi hai jao (go wherever you want) but you will have to play here only... because you’ve already signed for two more years.’”

Ruidas claims that he did not sign anything.
This is where everything changed.

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Like any other player would, Ruidas panicked. He did not remember signing a two-year contract extension. He has a theory though - he claims the club had made him sign a blank page at some point in the previous season - and maybe that immature decision had come back to haunt him. He asked the club to show him the contract they claim he signed; one that apparently ran till the 2018-19 season. They refused to do so. That's when he decided to take matters into his own hands and approach the right authorities.

It all began with the following email he wrote on July 13, 2017, requesting the All India Football Federation (AIFF) to have KEB share a copy of this mystery contract extension.

Email from Ruidas to AIFF dated July 13th 2017

Responding positively to Ruidas’ request, the AIFF duly asked KEB to send them [AIFF] the contract which they [KEB] claimed Ruidas had signed. KEB shared a copy of the contract, which AIFF sent to Ruidas on July 18, 2017. Ruidas was taken aback upon seeing the contract. He replied firmly in an email, denying knowledge of the contract and questioning the validity of paperwork that did not have KEB’s seal, nor any witness signatures.

Email from AIFF to Ruidas and his reply dated July 18th 2017

Other KEB player contracts, identical to Ruidas’ and accessed by this writer, were all on stamp paper with the club’s seal. Why then, the exception for Ruidas’ extended contract? Why would an established club break their pattern when they already have a solid template and procedure in place?

KEB eventually relented to showing him the contract in person. They, however, showed him a copy of the contract. “They did not allow me to take the photocopy with me or take photos of it as well. I had never signed this contract,” Ruidas said.

At the time, Ruidas also signed up with leading football agent Anuj Kichlu and sought the services of Krida Legal - a formidable name in the world of Indian sports litigation. Krida Legal, along with partner Vidushpat Singhania, have handled several high-profile cases including the IPL spot-fixing case and wrestler Narsingh Yadav's doping ban. Singhania, a distinguished sports lawyer, helped facilitate the drafting of the National Sports Development Bill and the Prevention of Sporting Fraud Bill.

Getting legal help was a wise move. Primarily because Ruidas’ claim that the contract is 'not valid' - because it did not have the club’s seal nor did it have a witness - would not suffice to make his case. After all, Lionel Messi, arguably the world's greatest footballer, signed his first contract with FC Barcelona on a tissue paper, now safely tucked inside a wooden frame for eternity.

As Singhania told us at his office in New Delhi, oral and email agreements are also valid. However, the absence of the elements that Ruidas raised does make the contract ‘questionable’ at the very least. “Things like notary and stamp paper are curable defects. Witness signatures are not mandatory according to the Supreme Court, but if it's not there then the evidence value of contracts is generally lower,” Singhania clarified.

He added that in case there were details filled in by hand on the contract (visible in the disputed contract below), both parties sign or put their initials there (visibly absent).

The original 5 page document signed by Ruidas on a stamp paper and notarised

The 6 page document presented by KEB

Signatures from the contract and disputed contract side by side

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What then about Ruidas’ other primary allegation - that he didn't sign the contract extension at all? He admits that it was his signature on the disputed contract. But is it?

Krida Legal would not comment on the case. Singhania, however, said that if push came to shove, a forensic expert's opinion would be considered in a case such as this.

Enter two forensic experts.

Dr V. C. Misra, 62, a PhD in forensic document examination has been working in the forensics field for nearly 30 years. His work is regularly published in international journals. More importantly, he is a consulting expert and trainer with the Delhi Police, the CRPF and various defence forces.

“The signature from pages 2 to 6 have certainly been copied from an original signature and transferred onto these pages,” Mishra said. “It is very clear that there is a lack of natural human variation [emphasis ours] across all signatures - something you can see in the older contract. It is made from a common genuine model and even the size of the signature apart from on the last page is the same as on every other.”

“Even the most basically trained forensic expert will see through this,” Mishra continues. “If this was to go to court, methods like compatible photography under transmitted light and superimposition using transparencies will give you the answer.”

The second expert, a former director of the forensics division in the Government of India, wished to remain anonymous.

“It is certain the signatures on the second document (disputed contract) are traced or copied,” he said. “There is no human variation [emphasis ours] and the letters preceding and superseding each other are exactly the same. The player can initiate a proceeding against the party and deny that he signed the contract. There is a chance the club may deny revealing the original contract in this case or say they've lost it.”

He suggests a simple exercise to prove his assessment further. “You can see for yourself if you keep both pages on top of each other while facing the sun or a lamp that the signatures will superimpose on each other and there is absolutely no difference across all pages.”

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Ruidas was smart to not suit up in any way for KEB, be it even for a gym or practice session. Krida Legal was very clear on how a contract, even one without signatures, can be enforced.

“Implied consent plays a major role,” said Gautam Karhadkar, a Krida Legal lawyer assigned to the case. “Let's say a player signs and still wants to pull out - he can't possibly do that if he acts on the contract - which is to say that he starts training or playing or accepting payment from the club. If he starts doing all those things - then consent is implied. If material terms of the contract are being fulfilled by both parties, you have then accepted the contract by acquiescence on the terms of the contract.”

Ruidas stands by his claim that he did not sign the contract. Neither did he partake in contractual terms such as training or playing for KEB after his contract expired. In such a case, sports law makes it very clear that a player cannot be “left hanging at the mercy of the club and is free to fend for himself.”

Ruidas did just that. He entered the 2017 ISL draft and was picked up by Mumbai City FC (MCFC) for Rs 18 lakhs. He did not break any law in doing so.

That's when the pressure on KEB cranked up. Two days after the draft, MCFC wrote to the AIFF seeking clarity on Ruidas’ case, requesting them to refer the matter to the Player Status Committee.

Mumbai City's letter to the AIFF dated 25th July 2017

The wheels moved quicker. Just as MCFC sent a letter to AIFF, KEB approached the IFA, who decided to step in and make a judgement on the case.

This upset the usually resigned AIFF. They shot off a letter to the IFA on July 27, 2017, telling the IFA to “not proceed any further with determining or adjudicating the disputed issue”. A gentle reminder that the IFA simply had no power to decide on the matter. This was now an AIFF matter.

AIFF's letter to the IFA dated 27th July 2017

Aiding the AIFF's cause was a stern legal notice sent to the IFA by Krida Legal. In a step-by-step argument, Krida destroyed any illusions of jurisdiction the IFA believed they had in the matter.

Krida Legal's notice dated 27th July with highlighted paragraphs.

The notice was in response to IFA’s persistent calls to Ruidas, insisting that he visit their offices to resolve the matter. This was an issue; Ruidas alleges that on a previous visit to try and resolve the matter, the IFA called the press on him. They allegedly told him “Lafde matt karo future derail ho jaayega” (don't get into this controversy, it will jeopardise your future).

AIFF’s letter and Krida Legal’s notice be damned; the IFA went ahead and decided in favour of KEB. According to them, Ruidas was still a player with KEB. No copy of this decision was made available to the public.

The AIFF promptly declared that the decision did not stand and referred the matter to its Player Status Committee. In the meetings’ findings the ‘token system’ was highlighted:

The ‘Players Status Sub-Committee’ of IFA proceeded to adjudicate and by its decision dated 28th July, 2017 adopted a decision that inasmuch as the Constitution of IFA stipulates that “whichever Club is in possession of the “Token” of a Player has the ‘legal right’ of registering the player in their Club, and as Kingfisher East Bengal showed that it is in possession of the ‘Token’ of Abinash Ruidas, he must play for Kingfisher East Bengal.

For those who may not know, the ‘token system’ is a regressive system. Under the age-old system, when a club decides they would like to sign a player, they pay the IFA a small fee, upon which they (quite literally) receive a chip/coin or ‘token’, deemed to represent the respective player. This exchange signifies a ‘legal’ transaction in the eyes of the IFA, indicating that the player is ‘owned’ by that paying club. When a player’s contract is up the team to first ‘buy’ his token from the IFA wins the right to ‘own’ the player.

The AIFF Player Status Committee, in its final ruling, not only declared Ruidas a free agent but also deemed that the token system was an outdated method with zero legal value. They called it “untenable, wrongful, unreasonable and unjust” and “akin to putting the horse behind the cart.”

AIFF PSC COMMITTEE on the TOKEN SYSTEM with highlights

The Player Status Committee, an independent judicial body, firmly reminded the IFA of their duties to read the AIFF rulebook and abide by its statutes.

AIFF PSC on IFA

The Player Status Committee went on to say that since Ruidas' matter was under adjudication, he was free to enter the ISL draft.

You can read the document in its entirety here.

After a myriad of meetings and swift-moving paperwork, the matter was settled. Ruidas received a No Objection Certificate (NOC) to play for Mumbai City FC for the 2017-18 ISL season.

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It was only fair to get all sides of the story. We put forth these allegations to KEB and the IFA seeking their version. The club's secretary Rajat Guha said that the matter was behind them now and the club wished luck to Ruidas. He hoped he would one day come back and play for them.

KEB's senior advisor and youth team coach Alvito D'Cunha,though, had a different take. D’Cunha, who played 14 seasons for KEB, claims that Ruidas asked for Rs 18 lakhs - MCFC’s winning bid for the winger at the 2017 ISL Draft. The disputed contract states that Ruidas would get the same amount at KEB, but over two seasons: Rs 8 lakhs for 2017-18 and Rs 10 lakhs for 2018-19.

“He asked for a raise. But why ask for a raise on a contract that he did not sign?” Alvito asks. “Ruidas should consider himself very lucky that we let him go. He should, in fact, be happy that we wanted to keep him despite his disciplinary issues.”

D'Cunha was referring to reported incidents of Ruidas’ late night partying in Goa, and his alleged altercation with a policeman.

“The Goa story is true. I did stay out late the previous night. I showed up for practice late in the morning the next day. The club’s policy was to levy a fine. I paid the fine and joined practice the next day.” Ruidas admits. And the altercation? “Completely false. It is not true. Nothing like that ever happened.”

“No offence but I find it surprising that you have gone on and sent the papers to forensic experts because it is not your job,” says D’cunha. “I want to know whether the AIFF's Player Status Committee also came to a judgement after sending the papers to experts. If they did, they should be open about it,” D'Cunha said.

Reliable sources at the AIFF inform us that the Player Status Committee did not call a forensic handwriting expert which means the forgery matter did not take precedence in their ruling. The AIFF's public statement regarding its decision on the case cites two articles in its Status and Transfer of Players: Article 4.3 and Article 5 that primarily state two things:

Players need to be registered, and
All players “Upon registration the player abides by statutes and regulations of FIFA/AFC and AIFF.”

AIFF transfer regulations article 4.3 and 5

Another logical conclusion as to why the Player Status Committee ruled in favour of Ruidas is that KEB did not submit the new and disputed contract to the AIFF. The general idea is to do so within 15 days of the player having signed it (KEB claim Ruidas signed the contract on June 15, 2017). The controversy erupted in July; almost a month after a new contract was allegedly signed. When we put this question to KEB and AIFF, they admitted to the lax implementation of this rule.

“We were waiting for all the other players' documentation as well before we submitted the contracts. It has never been exercised in such a way and this rule was brought up only because a controversy happened with Ruidas. Why has the AIFF never asked us to make sure of this in all these years?” D'cunha asked.

The AIFF's general secretary Kushal Das admitted that the case brings a lot of things to the fore. He has assured everyone involved that moving forward all player contracts in India will go up on a website which can be accessed by the public.

“It’s an important case because everything is crystal clear - the jurisdiction of the AIFF over all transfers, the transparency required in the future and the fact that these rules will be implemented now unlike in the past. Even ISL contracts will come under this ambit,” Das said.

In an interview in August this year, Das had also spoken about how AIFF’s new stringent approach will bring an end to the token system: “This would also ensure that the having a mere token in the absence of a valid contract with the player which isn’t registered wouldn’t hold any standing. So if any club wants to approach a player, they can check our website and get the details of how long his contract is with the current club and what his salary is. This will make the transfer process much more smoother,” he told Goal.com.

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IFA chief Ganguli seemed understandably annoyed when our findings were put forward to him, calling it a ‘superficial investigation’. He did not want to comment any further on the signatures, saying that “a signature was a signature”.

He remained adamant that the AIFF's ruling is incorrect. “I still disagree with the fact that the IFA does not have jurisdiction over the matter and the IFA does not accept the lawyer's notice. But we're not going to pursue this case anymore. AIFF is the parent body and aware of IFA rules. We also have a constitution and a Player Status Sub-Committee. There must be more synchronisation in the future to avoid such confusion. Our interpretation is that this is still a local matter.”

Ganguli isn’t entirely accurate here. KEB compete in an AIFF-accredited tournament. This binds them to AIFF rules, and by extension AFC's (Asian Football Confederation), and FIFA's rules. This, by no means, is a local dispute.

“There are systemic flaws which have been there in Indian football, and these cases will remind them and inspire them to correct these flaws and put in a proper system,” Krida Legal's Singhania said. “But the requirement to play in an accredited tournament means abiding by national federation and then in turn FIFA statutes. However, this needs to be exercised which hasn't happened over the years and must now happen.”

Singhania continues, “I know for a fact that when somebody who knows these things and understands sports law, goes to an administrator, they [administrators] fail to understand. In one instance an administrator said that he was sitting on his chair for 30 years and knew how to run the sport more than someone who has studied a FIFA masters course dealing with these problems.”

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Ruidas’ allegations and consequent case sound eerily like goalkeeper Snehasish Chakraborty’s case back in 2009. Chakraborty claimed that KEB had forged his signature on a new contract extension the moment they found out he was moving to Mohun Bagan.

Chakraborty claims, that as he was about to sign for Bagan he received a letter from KEB which stated that he could not move to The Mariners. The letter also said that he had taken an advance of Rs 100,000 from KEB.

Fortunately for Chakraborty, Mohun Bagan stepped in and hired an advocate who immediately determined that the signatures on the contract extension were false. The IFA did not back down completely, slapping Chakraborty with a penalty of INR 200,000. The case eventually ended with Bagan paying Rs 5,000 on behalf of the player as a penalty. More importantly, though, no one contested the fact that the IFA could not rule on the matter.

The media is also at fault here. The Ruidas case has hardly been investigated in depth. “For every article which explored the nuances of the case, there were ten more which sensationalised it. It is but natural that a lot of local media who want to be in the circle of trust of big clubs may not report entirely on the matter,” said Nitin Mittal, one of the three Krida Legal advocates who worked on the Ruidas case.

“Everyone turned on me. Fans would believe media reports and abuse me in the streets and on Facebook. My family went through the same ordeal. I had to leave the city for a few days to escape this trauma,” Ruidas said.

It comes down to player education and awareness as well. Most Indian players give up school and education in the pursuit of football. This leaves them significantly lacking in understanding the English language - critical when dealing with legal paperwork in India. Ruidas’ situation is slightly better as he dropped out only after his first year of college, but most players do not get that far. The Football Players Association of India (FPAI) occasionally does advise players on the somewhat complicated contract law. However, leading football associations around the world hold regular seminars to educate players about contractual paperwork.

Ishfaq Ahmed, a former Mohun Bagan and KEB player who sits on AIFF’s technical committee, sympathises with clubs saying that players must share the blame as well. “Contract disputes are very common in Indian football. But it's not just clubs at fault because I have also seen a lot of cases where players have signed for two clubs knowing that it’s going to cause trouble.”

The lessons learned from the Ruidas case will have a huge impact on Indian sport, especially football. Krida Legal said that the ISL has already heralded a change with their contracts now being used as a template across the sport. Taking a cue from the BCCI, who now draw up watertight contracts, Indian football is moving towards less opaque paperwork.

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Way back in 1995, Belgian midfielder Jean-Marc Bosman won a ruling that allowed players all over Europe to move with no restriction and no transfer fee at the end of their contract. That case, now known simply as the Bosman Ruling, has set the tone for all disputed player movement in Europe ever since. Indian football now has it’s own landmark ruling:

The Ruidas case.

The Curious Case of Abinash Ruidas and the Identical Signatures

Credit: Arun Kishor / Trip Creative Services

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