Chance to make a start

Chance to make a start

On the night of November 13 this year, some 36 hours before the deadline for presenting the bid documents to host the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup, the All India Football Federation, still did not know whether they would be submitting the necessary papers on time.

Reason? There had been a delay in procuring the necessary guarantees from the myriad Indian ministries, like tax exemptions for broadcasters and sponsors, foreign exchange remittances, security, transport and accommodation of players and provision of visas to name a few. In fact, FIFA’s original deadline was September 30 but extended it to give India every chance of making a bid.

They managed to push through the bid document just in time, managed to beat the other bidding countries South Africa, Ireland and Uzbekistan to get the right to host the biennial tournament.

 That India has been given the right to host the tournament doesn’t come as much of a surprise because FIFA themselves pencilled in the country as a possible destination for the tournament. Its president Sepp Blatter has referred to India as the ‘sleeping giant of world football’ on more than one occasion and they have launched a couple of vision projects keeping India in mind.

Looking at countries that have hosted the Under-17 World Cup in the recent past, it is clear that FIFA is making a conscious effort to develop and spread the game in regions which are not regulars on the world stage (five of the eight countries to have staged the tournament since 1999 — Trinidad and Tobago, New Zealand, Finland, Peru and UAE — have negligible pedigree).

 While India needs to grab this opportunity with both hands, it is also important that AIFF remind themselves that they haven’t achieved anything yet. The rewards of staging a successful tournament are big, but the challenges and the potential pitfalls are arguably greater. And one of the great challenges that the young players face in India today is of not playing enough competitive football.

Jurg Nepter, FIFA’s head of Education and Technical Development agrees that young players in India are being held back because of the lack of proper competition in various age-group categories. “This is a different culture from where I come. In Europe, we have competitive leagues for kids who are 8 or 9 years old. Here, there are almost no competition for even 13 and 14-year-olds,” he said during a visit to Bangalore. “That needs to improve because only with frequent competition can a player compete properly at the international stage.”

While the AIFF has made it mandatory for all I-League clubs to have a youth component, former India captain Bhaichung Bhutia wonders whether most of the clubs have it for the sake of having. “Yes, the AIFF have made it compulsory for all (I-League) clubs to have a youth team. But how many of them are just doing it for the sake of doing it?”

One team that is building a youth team seriously is Bengaluru FC, according to Mustafa Ghouse, its CEO. “I can’t speak for other I-League clubs but what I can say is that we have a very expensive youth set up here and we are already working with the AIFF in this regard,”said Ghouse.

Wherever FIFA conducts a World Cup, the world body likes to leave behind a legacy. According to David Borja, a senior FIFA Asia Development Programmes officer, the legacy they want to leave behind after 2017 is project youth with stress on developing football from the grassroots level.  “It is good that the I-League has Under-19 teams but they should now start having Under-17, Under-14 and so on. But yes, this is a start.”

He also feels that India is one of Blatter’s pet projects. “Our (FIFA) president Sepp Blatter feels that we should support India more than any other country because it is such a big country.”

Getting a competitive team for 2017 may already be out of the question for India. Moreover, winning the Under-17 World Cup guarantees nothing. Nigeria, who claimed the crown this year in UAE, have won it the most times since its inception in 1985 but they are still seen as a second-tier team on the international stage. But having a system in place by then could spell wonders for India.

You will be hard pressed to find India taking part in a FIFA event before – let alone bidding to host one. The closest they ever came to playing in a FIFA World Cup was in the 1950 when they decided to withdraw from the tournament. Why? While the apocryphal story of the Indian side wanting to play barefoot and FIFA banning them has gained credence, historians have pointed out that the AIFF, at the time, didn't realise the importance of the World Cup and decided not to take part in it as they considered the Olympics to be the ultimate goal.

Sailen Manna, who would have been the captain of the team had they gone to the World Cup, backs up this claim. "We had no idea about the World Cup then. Had we been better informed, we would have taken the initiative ourselves. For us, the Olympics was everything. There was nothing bigger."

FIFA has asked AIFF to come up with six world-class venues and the latter has shortlisted eight venues – Kolkata, Guwahati, Pune, Bangalore, New Delhi, Mumbai, Kochi and Goa – from which two will be dropped.

It is important that the AIFF gets its infrastructure right not just because of the World Cup but because they can revive the interest in the domestic game. The people who have long lost interest have always cited the shambolic nature of the stadiums as a turn-off. Bhutia agrees with the sentiment. “It’s great news that we have won the right to host the World Cup. The stadiums will get a complete refurbishment and the people will again come and start watching the game.”

One thing that the AIFF will have to be careful is not to let the refurbished stadia rot once the World Cup is over. Karnataka State Football Association President AR Khaleel already has plans to ensure that that won’t happen. Khaleel reveals his plans to renovate the Bangalore Football Stadium, the home of BFC with the U-17 World Cup in mind.

“Most of the stands are old. We plan to demolish three of four wings of the stadium and completely give it a new look. We hope to have a capacity of about 35000 and once the refurbishment is complete, we will make maximum use of the facility and there is no chance of it going waste,” Khaleel said. There are also plans to install temporary floodlights in time for the second half of the current I-League season.

The one advantage of getting world-class stadia is the opportunity to conduct more international tournaments. One such tournament that the AIFF has its eyes on are the 2015 and the 2016 editions of the Club World Cup (CWC)  – a tournament where the champions of the six confederations and the winner of the host nation’s league face off on an annual basis. But Bhutia feels that AIFF needs to take it one step at a time.

“It’s good if they are planning to host something of that magnitude, but we shouldn’t take too many things only to mess it up.” Khaleel and Nepter both think that the potential of hosting CWC could serve as a good precursor to the Under-17 WC.

Hosting the Under-17 World Cup is just baby steps for India in world football. If the AIFF realises that it is only a staging post on a long road, then there could be some serious talent for Rob Baan’s pet project of getting India to qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

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