Time to kick our football long and hard!

Now with the lights dimmed at the Salt Lake Stadium and the confetti cleared post the nightly revelries of October 28, the arduous voyage to reshape India’s football destiny begins.

An aerial view of the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan, also known as Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata, which was one of the main venues for the 2017 FIFA Under-17 World Cup. Twenty six new training sites were put up in the six venues of the recent U-17 event and one hopes that they would be made use of to hone local talent.   -  K. R. DEEPAK

India, the land of festivals, is still giddy in its success of hosting a festive-filled Under-17 World Cup.

The event, like the big fat Indian wedding, had its share of pomp and splendour, its success attributed to the perfect mix of on- and off-field equations. But, long after the lights have dimmed and the DJs have left, it’s the lasting relationship built between two parties that makes a marriage successful. While India collected kudos for its welcoming hospitality, the World Cup’s true inheritance can only be the long-term sustainability of the football enthusiasm generated in the country. This should lead to the development of the sport, allowing India to have its legitimate position at least in the pantheon of Asian greats.

The qualification to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, an unnecessarily bloated affair of 24 teams, is barely a measure of Indian football’s growth. Missing out on the competition would have been yet another nadir and the participation confirmation is no news to tom-tom about.

The message is loud and clear

However, the record attendance at the FIFA event across six cities should enthuse the administrators, a necessary sign proving an unbridled interest in the sport. The usual glitches associated with international sporting events hosted in India and the stories of shoddy management were surprisingly missing, except the odd first-day breakdown of systems at Delhi’s Nehru Stadium, with the civic and security establishment showing more interest in securing the comfort of the Prime Minister and his many accompanying dignitaries and not the 20,000 plus children herded in from neighbouring Haryana to provide a manufactured cheering glow for the image-conscious omnipresent leader.

The 21 Indian boys, schooled in the methods of modern football for the past two years, showed enough heart in their three group league games, but the gulf in quality with the elites of the world was all too evident. Conceding nine goals in 270 minutes of play, India joined Canada (1987) and Trinidad and Tobago (2001) for the worst record by a host in an under-17 World Cup, failing to secure even a point. The country’s only moment of glory came in the 82nd minute of its second game against Colombia when Jeakson Singh, a Manipuri fluent in Punjabi, towered above his superior opponents to hand the nation its first goal in a FIFA event. The result, however, didn’t come India’s way, with the South Americans re-establishing their lead soon after.

Crowd response was really good for the FIFA Under-17 World Cup football matches. Here are spectators in Kochi, enjoying the match between Brazil and Spain.   -  H. VIBHU

 

An instant success — in a country thirsty for its own home-grown football heroes — Jeakson was obviously elated but showed composure and foresight, traits that might come in handy in his long professional journey. “It was a nice experience and I felt on cloud nine when I scored the goal. It is obviously a great feeling to score for my country in a FIFA World Cup but it would have been sweeter had we won the match. We deserved a result, and we tried our very best to get it, but in the process we learnt a huge lesson what international football is all about,” the young lad says.

The other hero of India’s campaign performed even more admiringly, often waging a lone battle against the marauding adversaries. Dheeraj Moirangthem, the calming presence in the Indian goal, had 16 saves with a Save Rate of 64 percent and is already sought after by a magnitude of overseas and Indian Super League clubs. The Federation’s plan to hold on to these boys in an AIFF Elite programme for a structured development, with the team playing in the I-League, might find few takers with clubs and franchisees offering the young players lucrative professional contracts, with amounts far exceeding the national body’s Rs. 50,000 monthly stipend. However, the lack of quality game time in a senior set-up might stunt the youngsters’ development.

FIFA U-17 World Cup: Top goal-scorers

The transition from an age-group to a higher grade is always tricky and clubs and national teams across the world are yet to find a perfect balance to expedite the process without jeopardising the competitiveness of the senior outfit. England, tasting its first under-17 World Cup triumph, benefited from the presence of well-rounded athletes, systematically trained at the elite Premier League academies. Chelsea, which has been in the forefront of academy development, supplied five players, while the Pep Guardiola project in Manchester City had three representations.

These young players, however, have very little scope to break into the Premiership sides, stacked with an expensively assembled star cast from across the globe. The London club, often criticised for its hoarding philosophy, has 33 young talents out on loan with Chelsea players finding work in five Leagues across Europe. “I am very happy for our players, and sometimes (Callum Hudson) Odoi came with us. I am very happy because it means our academy is working very well. I was only 16 years old when I made my Serie A debut. I think I am the best person to give this possibility, if I see it,” Chelsea coach Antonio Conte says. “In my experience at Juventus, Paul Pogba was only 18 years old. I repeat I want to give these possibilities — but you have to deserve these possibilities.”

Roy Hodgson, a former England manager and now in charge of a stuttering Crystal Palace in the Premier League, was more forthright about the slim chances of a player from this World Cup breaking into a Premier League side. “I very much doubt that we can throw an under-17 into our situation at the moment. But I’m delighted for him (Nya Kirby — an 81st minute substitute in the final), for England, I think it’s very good reward for the good work that’s been going on at St. George’s Park for a number of years now — certainly all the time I was at England, five, six years,” he says. “I’m delighted for Nya, I shall look forward to congratulating him personally when he returns from India and I shall of course take a close interest in him.”

Dheeraj Moirangthem, India’s goalkeeper, was impressive. He has attracted many ISL contracts.   -  AP

 

For India, the organisational success of hosting the under-17 World Cup can only be a starting reference to the enormity of the work ahead. The seamless running of the event, across multiple cities, affirmed India’s capability of hosting global events. Visiting teams and officials from FIFA were unequivocal in their appreciation of the Local Organising Committees for the conceptualisation and execution of the event. The infrastructure legacy — the six newly refurbished stadiums and more importantly, as reported by Sportstar, the 26 newly created training venues — will finally offer quality grounds for the football enthusiasts in the country.

U-17 in numbers

“We delivered a clean, transparent tournament that was world class. That was our stated objective from the very start,” the Project Director, Joy Bhattacharya, says. “Our legacy will be the 26 training fields. We hope these training sites become hubs for football. There are also the 300-odd people from the LOC and 2,500 volunteers, who have the experience of working in a World Cup. They can fuel the future growth of Indian football.”

Now with the lights dimmed at the Salt Lake stadium and the confetti cleared post the nightly revelries of October 28, the arduous voyage to reshape India’s football destiny begins. For the soldiers and generals alike — in this mission — there’s just reward at the end of the road as they play their part in making India a “football nation.”

Forget the FIFA President’s assessment or the wishful thinking of almost every media article, we still have a long way to travel before we fulfil that goal.