Laying a rich manure, hoping for buds and blossoms!

The true legacy of the Under-17 World Cup in India will be felt only if there is a long-term strategy for maintaining and finding proper use for the upgraded infrastructure. Football and budding footballers need more grounds to play and the World Cup and its Mission XI Million project have planted seeds of a football revolution. The role of nurturing it after the biennial event will be a tough, but absolutely vital task.

All India Football Federation President Praful Patel (centre) along with India Under-17 team coach Luis Norton de Matos and Tournament Director of the FIFA Under-17 World Cup 2017 Javier Ceppi during a press conference in New Delhi on September 26. The mood is really upbeat.   -  SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

The global game is seeing an exponential rise with barriers broken and new frontiers added to its already burgeoning empire. Challenging the might of the central European and South American powerhouses, little-known places from eastern Europe, Africa and elsewhere are producing a lot of today’s football stars. The Bundesliga title races are, now, routinely powered by Polish or Gabonese strikers, while in England we have stars from Armenia, Korea and even Mali, which ranks an abysmal 175 in the Human Development Index. Its FIFA ranking, however, is a much healthier 76 and as many as 20 of its 23 current national players ply their trade in Europe.

READ: Sunil Chhetri on U-17 World Cup

Football, for long, has provided an opportunity for hard-working youngsters to find a life away from poverty and hardship. With the game turning richer by the day the trend continues and grows. The world’s favourite sport now provides more employment opportunities even as traditional job markets shrink further, reeling under the threat of growing automation.

PHOTO GALLERY: Know your Indian stars

The world governing body, embattled by corruption charges in a system which allows little scope for transparency and good governance, has done well to spread its net far and wide, using its wealth from its flagship senior men’s World Cup to not just buy votes but also bring in development.

READ: Praful Patel: Working on a long-term plan

Its age-group competitions are a way to democratising football, allowing non-traditional nations a chance to host an international event and thereby also providing an opportunity to test footballing skills against the best in the world. India, ranked 107, will thus have its first brush with a FIFA event as it welcomes 23 other nations for the 17th edition of the Under-17 World Cup.

“When we started our development programmes in 2002, we confirmed that we would be committed to see India grow as a footballing power. The initiative to start grassroots development and the U-17 World Cup bid is a good one,” the then FIFA President, Sepp Blatter, had said after India had officially expressed its interest for the 2017 event in March 2012.

 

A little more than a year later, a beaming Praful Patel, the AIFF President, said: “This is historic. This is what we have been waiting for. I need to thank the FIFA Executive Committee for trusting us.”

Fast forward to now, a few years of diligent work by the Local Organising Committees, and state and central governments have ensured a smooth run-up to the event, unlike the chaotic scenes that usually precede other big-ticket global sports meets. New Delhi’s 2010 Commonwealth Games, or Rio de Janeiro’s hosting of the 2016 Olympics were marred by stories of corruption and mismanagement.

The work at the six chosen venues — improving the playing turf, the installation of four practice pitches in each centre, and enhanced in-stadia facilities for players, officials and spectators — was completed well within time. “There were some delays early on, but they have all been set right. Everything is going as per schedule. In terms of the training sites, all the fields of play have been laid, the floodlights are up and running and the dressing rooms are ready. Now we have taken over the maintenance of the fields to ensure they are top-class for the World Cup,” Javier Ceppi, the Tournament Director, told Sportstar a month ago.

The preparation of the junior national side, however, hasn’t been as smooth. German coach Nicolai Adam faced a revolt from his wards, who found his ways too overbearing and often abusive. Siding with the players, a rarity in Indian sports (unless of course you are a Virat Kohli), the AIFF was quick to part ways with Adams and bring in Portugal’s Luis Norton de Matos, seven months prior to the tournament.

Norton, who has previously coached Benfica B, was initially concerned with the lack of physicality in his team and was quick to address the problem by supporting the AIFF-SAI’s Overseas Scouting Programme headed by Abhishek Yadav, the Chief Operating Officer of the U-17 squad.

People from various walks of life taking part in the One Million Goals programme at the QAC grounds in Kollam to herald the Under-17 World Cup. In the district, 194 goalposts were put up to net 4,42,000 goals. It is this increased awareness for the game that the FIFA event is aiming to promote.   -  C. SURESH KUMAR

Defender Namit Deshpande (USA) and goalkeeper Sunny Dhaliwal (Canada) were brought in to strengthen the core of the squad. The addition of one defender and three midfielders from the Minerva Punjab FC Academy, the 2017 junior I-League champion, added further muscle to Norton’s side. A round of impressive results on their European tour and a 1-1 draw with Latin American giant Chile in a four-nation meet in Mexico earlier in August has given the young boys the perfect psychological tuning going into the World Cup. “The boys are mentally fit and are raring to go. Obviously there is pressure but pressure is part and parcel of any competitive sport,” Dr. Swaroop Savanur, the team’s mental conditioning coach, says.

India’s chances of progressing past the first round, however, look remote with record 15-time participants USA, two-time winner Ghana and Colombia making up its group. Canada in 1987 and Trinidad and Tobago in 2001, as hosts, lost all their three group games, the worst performance by a host nation in an Under-17 event. A similarly poor result by Norton’s boys will perhaps be disastrous for the sport, which is still looking for a moment of inspiration to find a toehold in a nation still obsessed with cricket and now perhaps with its blossoming badminton stars.

 

Three-time champion Brazil, clubbed in Group D with European champion Spain, DPR Korea and Niger, will start as the early favourite in the absence of record winner Nigeria. The team’s first-round clash with the young La Rojas is already billed as the match of the tournament, where South American flair will look to assert its supremacy over the technically gifted Spaniards. Mali, the African champion, will also look to ease its way past New Zealand, Paraguay and Turkey in Group B.

A plethora of young, attractive talent in Joshua Sargent, Tim Weah (USA), Yadir Meneses (Colombia), Paulinho and Brenner (Brazil), Mateu Morey and Abel Ruiz (Barcelona and Spain), Angel Gomes (Manchester United and England), Jordan Sancho (Borussia Dortmund and England) and Amine Gouiri (Olympique Lyon and France) have impressed during the qualifying campaign earlier this year. With the attention of the world now focused on them, these youngsters have the perfect platform to showcase their wares and follow in the illustrious footsteps of early U-17 stars like Ronaldinho, Fernando Torres, Gigi Buffon, Kanu and many others.

For India, it’s a glorious opportunity to watch these rare international talents from close quarters and a breakthrough performance from the likes of Anwar Ali or skipper Amarjit Singh Kiyam will go a long way in making the 2017 Under-17 World Cup a cornerstone in the development story of Indian football.

The true legacy of the event will be felt only if there is a long-term strategy for maintaining and finding proper use for the upgraded infrastructure. Football and budding footballers need more grounds to play and the World Cup and its Mission XI Million project have planted seeds of a football revolution. The role of nurturing it after the biennial event will be a tough, but absolutely necessary task.

READ: FIFA U-17 WC in numbers

The real work will start after the floodlights are turned off at the Salt Lake Stadium on October 28.

  Dugout videos