Ceppi specifics on Indian football

“The Under-17 World Cup in India is like the transformational point for football in the country. If we manage to create a football revolution in India, it will be a revolution for the sport in the world,” says the Tournament Director, Javier Ceppi.

The FIFA inspection team, led by Javier Ceppi (left), the Under-17 World Cup Director, and Jaime Yarza, FIFA Head of Events, take a tour of the D.Y. Patil Stadium in Mumbai.   -  Yogesh Mhatre

The popularity of football in certain pockets of India — Bengal, Goa, Kerala and the North-Eastern states — has never been in doubt, and now with the country set to host its first FIFA event, the Under-17 World Cup, the sport has a golden opportunity to break into every household and loosen the stranglehold cricket has over the nation. Javier Ceppi of Chile, armed with the necessary expertise from organising the under-17 event at home in 2015, has worked tirelessly over the past two years to give India its first taste of a global football event. The Tournament Director has criss-crossed the entire nation to help kick-start a football revolution. The Chilean can’t wait for the event to kick off on October 6, and he spoke to Sportstar about his experience in India so far and his expectations from the tournament.

Excerpts:

Question: With the Under-17 World Cup round the corner, do you think India is well prepared to host the event?

Answer: The preparations are on as per plans, which is very important. Most of the core infrastructure is in place already. With the exception of very small jobs that we had always planned to do closer to the tournament, for example, the installation of goalposts, painting, etc., the infrastructure are in place for the event. Now, it is a matter of improving what has been done, making some small changes and going into the operation of the facilities.

We keep hearing about the delay in work at the main match venues, such as Kochi and Kolkata. What is the status of the practice venues?

There were some delays early, but they have all been set right. There are no delays now, 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... “Mission XI Million is very ambitious, it had never been tried before and it is changing the way football is perceived in India.”   -  PTI

Are you happy with how the training sites have shaped?

The training sites are the true infrastructure legacy. There are 26 grounds that have almost come up from scratch, pitches that can be used by schools, clubs and the community after the tournament. They will make a large difference to football development in the host cities, and that is something we are very happy about.

Ticket sales at few venues are still lukewarm. Do you see the demand for tickets going up as the tournament nears?

The trend in India is usually to have the sale of tickets very close to the tournament. So, to have sold these many tickets more than 60 days in advance is something unheard of. We certainly expect more and more fans to buy tickets closer to the tournament, but the situation right now is extremely good.

The Local Organising Committee (LOC) and FIFA — are they planning any campaign to increase the popularity of the event over the next few months?

You will see much more promotions. If you analyse it, we have not done any marketing campaign so far, all the reach has been purely organic, and in that sense the astounding results from ticket sales so far have indicated that our approach has been the right one. Awareness is there, interest is there, so it is a good situation.

What do you think will be the legacy of the World Cup to football in India — and also the sub-continent?

This is the first football World Cup in India and the sub-continent, which is very important. The legacy in India will be huge, thanks to the Mission XI Million project. Basically, football has been taken to all states in India, people who have never played have been exposed to the game, perceptions have changed in the sense that you can play football in a small space — in mud, dirt and on cement (floor) — with four people. This is a huge legacy and we feel that this will be the real change for football in India for years to come.

You have worked tirelessly over the past few years to get this event up and running. What have been the major challenges that you faced?

India is a huge country, and the number of flights that we have taken are not even funny and do take a toll at the end of the day. But it is all worth it — the different venues having very different people and culture, languages and emotions...

India is essentially a bureaucratic state, with most stadiums owned by state governments and multiple agencies staking claim to them. How have you dealt with these agencies? It must not have been an easy task.

We are extremely thankful to the Central Government and all State Governments. They understood that we had to plan forward and that we were dealing with very high standards. We have been working with them for more than two years and they take great pride on what they have been able to achieve with their facilities and how they are looking like now.

Among the six venues, where do you expect the maximum footfall, and why?

So far, going by the trend of ticket sales, Kolkata will have the maximum footfall. It is not only for the final, tickets for other matches too have been selling quite well, which speaks a lot about Kolkata’s passion for football. However, we are very confident that there will be a large footfall at all the other venues as well.

What, according to you, does football mean to India?

Football has always had a special place in India. It was a very important part of the Independence Movement, with the victory of Mohun Bagan over East Yorkshire Regiment. It saw great days in the 1950s and 60s and now the craze that the game is generating among the youth is unseen. Certainly, one day India will be a football country — it is moving towards that.

Do you think the country is ready to support its own football stars and not just follow clubs and players from the EPL and La Liga?

It should be the case. You can always be a Messi fan at the same time as you are a Bengaluru FC fan, for example. Following teams or players abroad does not prevent you from following your own local team.

How important will be the performance of the host team with regard to the success of the event?

It is very important, but more than the results, the key thing is the intent. If people see that the players are going all out, playing over their capacities and giving everything on the field, that should make everyone in India proud. Whatever the results later is secondary.

The Union Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, pledges his support for the 2017 FIFA Under-17 World Cup and the Mission XI Million programme at the India Gate in New Delhi.

You had also headed the LOC for Chile 2015. Do you find any similarities in how the bureaucracy and the administration in both countries work?

It would be very unfair to compare both countries. Basically, the entire Chile population would fit into New Delhi! The important thing is that the World Cup in India really feels like the transformational point for football in the country. If we manage to create a football revolution in India, it will be a revolution for the sport in the world.

Were Chile to clash with India in the later stages of the tournament, who will you support?

May the best team win. I will be happy with any result.

The Mission XI Million is an ambitious project. Are you happy with the way it has shaped up?

It is very ambitious, it had never been tried before and it is changing the way football is perceived in India. It is an extremely important programme. There are so many beautiful stories coming out of the project: kids from very remote places are getting exposed to football for the first time, teachers and school principals are introducing the sport in their schools, and a large number of girls are also playing football. It is just great; it is a real game-changer.

What should be the project’s road map after the World Cup?

Now, football has been introduced in schools and many states are interested in taking this forward, which is great. This is a long term approach of popularising the sport, changing the perception regarding football and increasing awareness.

What is FIFA’s long-term vision for Indian football? What will be your report to the headquarters in Zurich about football’s potential here?

There is a large potential for football in India, we are now seeing a lot of young kids getting more and more interested in the game. We feel the upside for football in India is huge. The national team is doing better as well, which is something that helps, and there is no reason why football can’t grow much more in India.

What do you think are the major roadblocks that need to be removed for India to excel at the Asian and international level?

It is about getting kids to play football, in any shape or form. That will be the only way to keep improving the sport here. Access to the game is very important, and so is giving each kid an opportunity to just kick a ball. The AIFF has taken a very concerted approach towards this by starting the Baby Leagues and focusing mostly on the grass-roots level. This is a long term strategy, and hopefully the results in the long run will reflect all the work that is being done now.

How has your experience in India been?

India is a very different place from where I come from, and it is very difficult to explain to anyone who has not been here or has not lived here, how it is like to live in India. It is beyond any expectations that anybody can have. The team that we have created in the LOC has certainly been the highest point of the whole journey, and so has been the happiness of the kids, parents and school teachers when we introduced the Mission XI Million.