FIFA under-17 World Cup: Like succour in the wilderness

The 2017 Under-17 World Cup, scheduled to be held in India, is expected to give a much-needed fillip to the sport in the country, which has forever failed to make a mark in football, even at the continental level.

Indian captain Sunil Chhetri displays a group position during the official draw of the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in Mumbai.   -  AFP

Age-group tournaments in the international arena are often overlooked, as success at the junior level does not necessarily guarantee future stardom. Many young players in the cocooned environment of academies lose their footing while making a transition to the cut-throat world of professional sport.

For every player making it big, finding a career in the sport he loves, there are many who fall by the wayside. They lead a miserable life of shattered dreams, and coping with life therefater becomes a big struggle.

READ: Sunil Chhetri Column: India warming up to the U-17 World Cup

The junior-level tournaments, however, are still important, giving the larger sporting world a glimpse of the talent available. The FIFA under-17 World Cup, a biennial event held since 1985 (it was called the FIFA Under-16 Championship for the first three editions), enables the young players to have their first feel of a global competition.

“We call the tournament the ‘U-17 World Cup’, but in the moment that you’re playing it and living it, it’s the World Cup, it’s not the U-17 edition. You never think about the age, you’re thinking that it’s your World Cup. In that moment, it’s the highest level. Playing for the first time for your country is one of the best feelings,” says Esteban Cambiasso, who played for Argentina in the 1995 edition.

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Cambiasso went on to forge an illustrious career, representing his country 52 times at the senior level. The percentage, though, of such success, is quite rare.

Only four of the 16 Golden Ball winners — the best player — at the tournament have had significant accomplishments after moving to a higher set-up. Landon Donovan (1999), Cesc Fabregas (2003), Anderson (2005) and Toni Kroos (2007) were indeed exceptions and their exploits for club and country following their heroics in the junior global meet were hard to predict. Kelechi Iheanacho, the 2013 winner, and Kelechi Nwakali (2015) have shown early promise but are yet to be counted among the legion of international stars.

However, the failure of William, Philip Ossundu, James Will, Nii Lamptey, Daniel Addo or Sergio Santamaria to have an equally fulfilling senior career is because of the football world — the club and country officials, agents and coaches — and not the players alone. Often, the lack of correct guidance and mentoring affects a footballer’s growth, from the youth to the senior level.

The 2017 under-17 championship, to be held in India between October 6 and 28, is expected to give a much-needed fillip to the sport in the country, which has forever failed to make a mark in football, even at the continental level. It will be the world’s second largest country’s (in terms of population) first venture with regard to conducting a FIFA event and Nwankwo Kanu, who led Nigeria to the U-17 crown in 1993, says: “I believe everything is going to change here in India after the competition. I know it’s not always been big into football but this is going to change that.”

The host, though, has been placed in a tough group with record 15-time participant USA and Colombia and Ghana, two of the strongest teams in the competition. India’s coach Luis Norton de Matos, who took charge of the team in March, is fully aware of the challenges awaiting his boys.

“USA have only missed one FIFA World Cup in this category and they will pose a tough challenge for us. Colombia are one of the best South American teams and they will be very tough and very strong on the pitch, while Ghana is the best after Mali in this age group from Africa,” the coach says. “All these teams will have at least 10 years of experience but we are not afraid to play our game. If we have a 20 percent chance of winning a game, we will ensure that we make it cent percent,” de Matos adds.

Though the sale of tickets for the tournament has been robust in Kolkata, where the final will be held on October 28, it has been lukewarm elsewhere. The All India Football Federation president, Praful Patel, promises a full house for the India games in New Delhi.

“All games which India play will have a large audience and we will ensure India all the support it can get from the fans. The AIFF, along with the Government of India, will ensure that a maximum number of schools and colleges come over to the stadium to cheer for the nation,” Patel says.

The tournament’s legacy will depend on its long-term impact on the country’s football. A feel- good factor envelops the sport in India now, as lowly Aizawl FC, buoyed by a strong support base, defied all odds to humble the established forces to win the 2017 I-League. The men’s senior team, too, is enjoying its stay in the top-100 in the world for the first time since the 1990s. The gain, however, has been largely possible due to clever manoeuvring of matches during the FIFA international dates.

The under-17 team has had encouraging results during its exposure tours to Europe and North America. But unhealthy pressure on these boys, who will form the backbone of the senior national team in the coming years, might do more harm than good to Indian football. Proper nurturing of the youngsters post the Under-17 World Cup is paramount.

Given the long-standing mismanagement in Indian sport, we might, over the years, have toned down our expectations, but as fans and lovers of the game, we, too, have a part to play in ensuring a favourable outcome for the tournament and for Indian football.