U-17 World Cup: The message is loud and clear

The fan response was unparalleled, but the question that lingered after the fanfare of organising the first football World Cup in India was how much of this enthusiasm would influence a qualitative change in the way the sport is practised in the country.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino is willing to play ball with India.   -  PTI

For long the illustrious mandarins of world football visiting the country have been dealing out euphemisms, but in the end Sol Campbell showed the fortitude to speak out in clear words. “Indian football is 50 to 100 years behind many countries,” the former England international and Arsenal great did not mince words when asked to comment on the unprecedented enthusiasm generated by the FIFA Under-17 World Cup.

Campbell, a member of the study group commissioned by the world body, FIFA, was forthright but not disrespectful when he pointed out the shortcoming. He went on to add in the same breath that the successful hosting of the tournament gives the country the scope to “patch up” with the best in the world.

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The whole of the FIFA hierarchy descended on Kolkata, where the final of the World Cup took place, making it a temporary headquarters for a few days outside its permanent address in Zurich. President Gianni Infantino appreciated the way India conducted the event and the unprecedented support it received in recording the highest attendance in the 32-year-old history of the championship.

But when asked as to how he felt about the Indian football team’s performance, Infantino preferred not to be too harsh in his comment. “Yes, there is a gap, but it is not that big as it was few years ago,” the FIFA President said.

The opinions of Campbell and Infantino seemed to hint that India needs to change the way it has been treating football so long. This was evident in the FIFA President’s statement, “Forget cricket, football is the future of India.” Though said in a lighter vein, Infantino seemed to draw home the need build on the enthusiasm engendered by the World Cup.

Recording the best turnout in the history of the junior World Cup, India surpassed China, the host of the inaugural edition in 1985, to record an attendance of around 12,90,000. This comfortably surpassed the earlier record attendance of 12,30,976 set in China.

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Bengal, often referred to as the nerve centre of Indian football, amply justified its status with a passionate response. Kolkata’s Salt Lake Stadium recorded the highest attendance per match, logging more than 5,50,000 spectators over 11 games. In the quarterfinals, semifinals and the final, the biggest amphitheatre of football in the country recorded capacity crowds.

The fan response was unparalleled, but the question that lingered after the fanfare of organising the first football World Cup in India was how much of this enthusiasm would influence a qualitative change in the way the sport is practised. “It is not just about organising a World Cup. It is about leaving a legacy and putting the football culture in the minds of all the Indians,” Infantino, the most powerful man in the world when it comes to football governance, emphasised. The FIFA president was clearly looking at the Indian administrators to initiate reforms that would extricate Indian football from the ennui of perennial under-performance.

Praful Patel, President, All India Football Federation (AIFF), wants to broadbase facilities in India to develop the sport.   -  AFP

 

The words of Campbell will also keep echoing and re-echoing in the minds of the big population of football lovers in India. “You are on the right path now. You have to go around the world and get more information,” the former England star said. “You have to be mindful of how to play, how to qualify and how to win matches. The experience will make the players better,” Campbell was specific about the requirements.

The young Indian team conceded nine goals while managing to score just once in its three defeats. This has largely been the case ever since India won the last recognisable medal in the international arena, the Asian Games bronze in 1970. It been 47 years since then and the country is living on unfulfilled dreams whenever the its national teams take part in international competitions.

“The biggest challenge for us is to change the demography of football in India. We need to have a pan-Indian footprint for the sport. We need to develop infrastructure and should be ready with another six venues apart from the ones developed for the World Cup. So we need support from FIFA,” Praful Patel, the President of All India Football Federation, said, pointing out a part of the big problem.

“We see the potential in India. We have to take our task at FIFA seriously of developing football. Football has to be sustained in India because the whole world will benefit from it and not only India,” Infantino held out the hand that the Indian federation is desperately looking to hold.

One of the stalwarts who wore the national colours when India won the Bronze in the Asian Games in Bangkok (1970) was Shyam Thapa. The talismanic centre forward is now the technical committee chairman of the AIFF and feels it is high time that India seized the opportunity to build teams for the future. “This was the first time that India played in a World Cup match. We were in a tough group and in spite of that the boys played well. It was an eye-opener for us. We have seen the standard and we should not see our effort as a bad performance,” Thapa, who was a part of the last great Indian team led by the legendary Syed Nayeemuddin, said. “We now need to nurture teams that will be good enough to qualify for different world events. First, we must try to be the best in Asia. This is a beginning. Now the AIFF will have to take it forward,” said Thapa.

Thapa was right in calling the Under-17 World Cup an eye-opener in many ways. It allowed a first-hand insight into how the best teams in the world manage youth development. It also gave the country an indication when to start and how to nurture talents like Rhian Brewster, Philip Foden and Abel Ruiz, the names who would go on to rule the world of professional football someday.