Only two days into the 2017 Fifa U-17 World Cup and the tournament is in full flow. From Brazil’s win over Spain, among the most high-quality football matches ever to be played on Indian soil, to India’s brutal reality check in a 0-3 defeat by the US on opening night, the competition has got off to a flying start. This is a landmark event that promises to leave a mark on the Indian audience, though what India’s football fraternity chooses to gain from it remains to be seen.
The U-17 World Cup coming to India isn’t so much a “sleeping giant” truly waking up as it is a lethargic one yawning and showing much overdue signs of life. It is only the beginning for a country that is light years behind the world standard in football.
Alongside 23 other teams vying for the biggest trophy in youth football, and perhaps more than any of them, there is much for India to learn from its first-ever global football tournament.
Hosting the U-17 World Cup is a big step forward for a nation that has curiously been absent from Fifa tournaments. In the 77 football world cups held before this edition, including men’s and women’s events across senior and age-group football spanning 87 years, India has neither hosted one nor participated in any.
To further highlight how belatedly India is jumping aboard the Fifa bandwagon, China hosted the inaugural men’s U-17 edition (U-16 at the time) in 1985 and Trinidad and Tobago did the same in 2001. Malaysia hosted the men’s U-20 event in 1997, while Thailand did so in 2004. Even Papua New Guinea, the tiny Oceanic nation, had welcomed the women’s U-20 event to its shores in 2016. In Fifa’s push to spread the game to developing nations over the last three decades, India is quite a late entrant.
Better late than never, though, and India finally has a chance to show its ability to host a global football event. A smoothly conducted World Cup will be a major achievement. It will boost the country’s modest profile on the footballing landscape and will serve as a significant step towards hosting events of similar stature in the future.
India’s successful bid to host this tournament, though, was orchestrated by Fifa, lest it be put down as a coup by the All India Football Federation (AIFF). Fifa wanted to penetrate into India’s “huge football market”, as described by former secretary general Jerome Valcke, during its 10-year developmental project (2012-’22) in the country. India was a clear favourite right from the start, with Sepp Blatter, Fifa president at the time, even flying down to garner the support of the government.
In December 2013, India was officially awarded the tournament, supposedly fending off rival bids from South Africa, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. It then set off on a twofold mission to prepare itself as the host and to ready a competitive U-17 national team, the country’s first ever to play in a Fifa World Cup.
As far as hosting goes, Fifa brings in decades of expertise in conducting global tournaments. It provides extraordinarily detailed guidelines for the host nations to follow to a tee. While speaking on the 420 Grams podcast, Joy Bhattacharya, the project director of the World Cup, described how Fifa hands out an 85-page manual even for ball boys and ball girls, which has instructions on things like where they should stand on the field, what they should wear and even the specifications of their changing rooms.
It helped India’s cause that the nation is blessed with venues which are capable of hosting major events. “India has 96 stadiums of 20,000-plus capacity,” tournament director Javier Ceppi had told the Hindustan Times, “only three other countries have more—the US, Japan and China.”
Compliance with world standards, though, remained an issue to work upon. Of the eight provisional venues selected for the U-17 World Cup, only the one in Chennai was compliant with Fifa standards—though it was later excluded from the final list after the state government failed to show any interest in hosting the event. None of the 26 training sites too, which are ready today, were anywhere close to the required standards.
Finally, Kolkata, which will host the final, Delhi, the venue for India’s group stage matches, Kochi, home to yesterday’s mouth-watering clash between Spain and Brazil, along with Margao (Goa), Guwahati and Mumbai made the cut as the six host cities. And barring hiccups in Kochi, where courts had to intervene to temporarily shut shops running at the venue and the capacity was reduced to less than half owing to security concerns, there hasn’t been much to worry about in the lead up to the tournament.
As is customary in Fifa events, the organizational expenses (Rs90 crore) are borne by Fifa itself, whereas the cost of renovating infrastructure (the stadiums, training grounds and the "beautification" of the city), which is deemed a legacy of the event, is borne by the central government (which had set aside Rs120 crore) and the stadium owners, which are the state associations. The West Bengal government, for instance, reportedly spent Rs60 crore of its own to give Kolkata’s iconic Salt Lake Stadium a major facelift ahead of the big event.
On the whole, like Ceppi had pointed out, India will not be spending as much as previous hosts the United Arab Emirates did in 2013 or Chile did in 2015, and the country’s planning has been better than those two nations as well.
On the other front, the AIFF’s approach to fielding a national team for the World Cup has been peculiar, albeit necessary, if you consider the absence of a structured youth football system which could produce U-17 players organically. This approach has involved recruiting foreign coaches, scouting young talent over multiple phases (through open trials and exhibition matches), even casting the net abroad for NRI footballers (two players have made it through this route), and flying this select group of players to 15 countries for "exposure tours" in search of better-quality opponents and year-round competitive games.
All of this, however, wasn’t a smooth process. After almost two years in charge of the U-17 team, German coach Nicolai Adam resigned in February of this year after the squad rebelled against his allegedly abusive behaviour. It served as a major setback for preparations, with Portuguese coach Luis Norton de Matos taking over only seven months ahead of the big event and altering the team’s style of play.
More than Rs15 crore has reportedly been spent on this team’s preparations; an extraordinary amount for a money-starved sport to invest in a single batch of a single age group. The results, though, haven’t come yet—India U-17’s competitive record heading into the World Cup read five victories in 31 games. Eight games against teams playing in this World Cup had yielded seven defeats and one draw, and that too against an under-strength Chile. A big defeat to US wasn’t a surprise. A handful of results were even misleadingly portrayed as landmark wins by a federation trying to justify the spends; a triumph over Italy U-17, for example, was actually against a team comprising players from third and fourth tiers of Italian football and not the Italian national team as was initially conveyed.
Several obstacles hindered the creation of this squad too. Age cheating, an epidemic in Indian football, reared its ugly head. Over two-thirds of the initial set of World Cup probables picked in 2012 were found to be over-age, and in 2015, a NorthEast XI side fielded eight over-age players for trials. Even two weeks before the event, The Times Of India had revealed that one "promising player" was excluded from the squad for failing the age test.
The indifference of state associations and clubs towards national interests came to the fore as well. Goa’s federation refused to field a team for selection (there’s no Goan player in the Indian squad), while most clubs playing in the U-16 league did not send their best three players for trials as per the AIFF’s request—though teams were given only a week’s notice when the league was in full flight. Here, AIFF’s planning is worth questioning: in a league tailor-made for its scouts, why did it depend on clubs to choose players?
In March this year, the Indian U-17 team faced Minerva Academy, India’s U-16 champions, in a practice match that subsequently yielded four new players for the final squad. It means nearly one-fifth of India’s 21-man final squad was chosen from one match against an Indian club side, yet this U-17 team was not pitted against other such domestic teams during its preparations.
There were 55 teams which played in the 2016-17 U-16 Youth League and it’s logical to suggest that the league’s best players weren’t all in the Minerva team. It makes you wonder how many players may have slipped under the radar.
The U-17 World Cup’s immediate and long-term impact will come under scrutiny in the years to follow. In the short term, the renovated stadiums and newly refurbished training sites will need to be put to good use to justify the event’s spending. No unused sports facility is maintained on its own; authorities always require a purpose. In India’s case, state associations particularly need a giant push to come out of their slumber, which is why there will always be scepticism in this regard.
In Mizoram, a state which stands out as an egalitarian society, football turfs installed from 2011 onwards were made available for public use, which in turn ensured that facilities would be used and maintained. Similarly, each stadium and training ground used in the World Cup needs its own calendar of football and non-football activities in place. All of these venues must be kept busy by hosting both big and small events round the year. It will certainly help that India’s two domestic leagues, the Indian Super League and the I-League, will run simultaneously and for much longer from this year onwards, which means clubs will make more use of the stadium facilities (each of the six stadiums will host at least one football club).
Also in the short term, there will be a spike in interest in the sport which needs to be capitalized on. The World Cup, with an Indian team participating in it, will further popularize the sport, especially among kids, but India doesn’t yet have systems in place to mould an eager child into a professional footballer. A youth football structure is only developing in India, with the U-15 league coming up in 2015 and the U-13 league slated to start this year apart from the U-18 league that has been running since 2011.
Player development during ages 5-12, the key to success of top football-playing nations, is non-existent. A four-week tournament cannot be a game-changer, as it’s portrayed in many quarters, when its funds are largely channelled towards impacting the sport at the top of the football pyramid rather than at the grassroots. At least by hosting the World Cup and having a team in it, the spotlight has shone on India’s youth football scene and even forced AIFF’s hand into kick-starting the aforementioned youth leagues.
The U-17 World Cup’s “legacy project”, though, is Mission XI Million (MXIM), which is aimed to reach 11 million kids in India and convince them to play football. Rs25 crore has reportedly been spent on MXIM. However, an investigation by the Hindustan Times revealed large-scale discrepancies in its reported figures aside from the project’s lack of a long-term plan to monitor and support schools that have been reached through this program. Last week, The Tribune revealed that its Right to Information (RTI) application, to know more about MXIM’s spending, was rejected by the AIFF and the Sports Authority of India (SAI). Whatever might be the legacy of this project, transparency certainly isn’t going to be one.
Hosting an U-17 World Cup isn’t going to lead to a football revolution, but a change in the myopic attitude of football administrators might just kick-start one. It remains a tall order for India.
Globally, the U-17 World Cup is considered by many to be the most entertaining of Fifa events. “For me, it’s the liveliest and the most enjoyable of all global tournaments,” veteran journalist Paul Gardner, who has covered 10 of the event’s first 11 editions, wrote in Soccer America last year. Young footballers tend to play in a more uninhibited and carefree manner than their seniors, which makes for pleasant viewing, in addition to matches at this level rarely descending into dull strategic contests. Careers do not end at this tournament; they’re only made. Fear of failure is overshadowed by youthful optimism.
However, the U-17 World Cup, a U-16 event till 1991, has a tarnished reputation. Gardner notes that it has “always been played under a heavy cloud of suspicion” when it comes to age fraud. The African and Asian teams have been under the scanner due to their dominance. Eight out of the 16 editions have been won by an African or an Asian country, yet no team from either of the two continents, except for South Korea in 2002, has gone beyond the quarterfinals of a senior World Cup. These numbers don’t add up.
A former Nigerian Football Association president had confessed to the BBC in 2010 that his nation, which has won this tournament a record five times, cheats in the youth championships. Nigeria hasn’t qualified for the 2017 event because after almost half of its provisional U-17 squad failed the age test, a weakened team lost to Niger in the first round of qualifying.
In 2009, Fifa introduced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the left wrist as a method to catch age cheats, a method which checks growth of the bone to identify whether a player is older than 17. While it is considered a more reliable procedure than its predecessors (which were passport checks and X-ray tests), the accuracy of the latest method hasn’t gone unchallenged either. Fifa has based its conclusions on the research of its own medical centre and it also refuses to publish the results of the tests it conducts during these tournaments, which hasn’t helped in mending the U-17 event’s damaged reputation.
Nigeria, meanwhile, has continued to dominate the tournament by winning the previous two editions, which several nations take as a sign that the U-17 competition still isn’t clean.
Aside from age cheating, there are other reasons due to which results in this event do not worry a top nation too much. Statistically, only a few players, if any at all, from one batch of this age group will be part of senior team in the future. It is too early an age to decide on a player’s future—there will be many dropouts and many late bloomers who aren’t even part of these squads.
Besides, in these top football-playing nations, the balance of power is often with clubs in this age group. Brazilian Vinicius Junior, the world’s most expensive teenage footballer, was not released by his club Flamengo. Christian Früchtl, the German goalkeeper, was also forced to stay back after his club Bayern Munich’s No. 1 custodian Manuel Neuer picked up a long-term injury last month. And English prodigy Jadon Sancho has only been released to play in the group stages by his club Borussia Dortmund.
This is not to suggest that this World Cup isn’t keenly fought or that it doesn’t mean much to players or fans. For players, it is the biggest occasion of their lives; the greatest honour for any teenage footballer. In the 2011 edition held in Mexico, the home side beat Uruguay 2-0 in the final in front of an astonishing 98,943 spectators at the Azteca Stadium. It was followed by an open-top bus parade, which reaffirmed the importance of youth football to the best of football nations.
Unlike in the case of a senior World Cup, for which there’s a separate qualifying event, the U-17 championship of each continent doubles up as the U-17 World Cup qualifiers. Brazil, who were thoroughly dominant in qualifying, and Spain, who edged England in a penalty shootout in the European U-17 final, along with Mexico, Iraq, Ghana and New Zealand have qualified as continental champions.
England, Germany and France from Europe; Colombia and Chile from South America; Japan and Iran from Asia; and the US from North America are other traditional giants who’ve travelled to India. Along with the host, little-known Oceanic island New Caledonia and African minnows Niger will make their debut in a Fifa World Cup. Meanwhile, the likes of Argentina, Italy, Uruguay, Portugal and Nigeria have all missed out.
India are clubbed with the US, Colombia and Ghana in Group A. It’s a tough group for the hosts, who may struggle to get even one point out of this tournament. Komal Thatal, a right-footed left-winger who loves to dribble inside and shoot on goal, is India’s most exciting prospect, as was evident against the US.. Striker Aniket Jadhav is who India will count on to score the goals, while full-backs Sanjeev Stalin, a dead-ball expert, and Boris Thangjam, a marauding right-back, are other players who are bound to catch the eye.
Indian captain Amarjit Singh Kiyam and Suresh Wangjam, the team’s most influential players in last year’s Asian U-16 qualifiers, will form the spine in central midfield. And like every Indian goalkeeper, Dheeraj Singh Moiranghtem is bound to see a lot of the action and will likely produce some flashes of brilliance too, glimpses of which were seen in the opening game.
Crowd-pullers Brazil may have missed out on Vinicius Jr but there’s enough talent in a team that went unbeaten (in nine matches) in qualifying. Yuri Alberto, a striker who is reportedly being chased by top European clubs, and Alan Souza, an attacking midfielder who scored a hat-trick versus Chile in qualifying, are the Brazilian players to watch out for.
Abel Ruiz (Spain), who has been making waves in his nation, Amine Gouiri (France), top-scorer in the qualifiers, and Jann-Fiete Arp (Germany), scorer of two hat-tricks in qualifying, are forwards who’re expected to light up the tournament. Arp, incidentally, joined his camp late because he was making his senior club debut for German top-division side Hamburger SV.
Considering the popularity of the English Premier League in India, England will be well supported. After tasting U-20 World Cup glory in the summer, the English will aim to do the double. Most of its players ply their trade in popular English clubs—five of them from Chelsea and three from Manchester City. Alongside Sancho, Phil Foden, the Manchester City playmaker, and Angel Gomes, the Manchester United midfielder, will be England’s star men. The team’s group stage matches versus Chile and Mexico promise to be a treat.
Josh Sargent and Tim Weah, son of legendary Liberian striker George Weah, could prove to be potent strike-force for the US. While Sargent will play for German top-division club Werder Bremen from the next season onwards and also featured in the U-20 World Cup this year, Weah recently joined French powerhouse Paris Saint-Germain. The US, though, had finished runners-up to Mexico in qualifying, for whom Jairo Torres, a midfielder who was awarded the Golden Ball (awarded to the best player) in the qualifiers, and Diego Lainez, another midfield sensation, are all set to dazzle.
Takefusa Kubo (Japan), the attacking midfielder who shot to fame with a “Messi-like” goal, Mohammed Dawood (Iraq), the Golden Ball-winning striker who blew Japan away with a hat-trick in qualifying, and Mohammad Ghaderi (Iran), an intelligent left winger, are among the topmost Asians at the World Cup. Furthermore, look out for DPR Korea skipper Kim Pom-Hyok, the uniquely versatile talent who can be used as a central defender or as a centre forward.
Goalkeeper Youssouf Koita (Mali), the chief reason his nation was crowned U-17 African champions, and Djibril Toure (Guinea) and Eric Ayiah (Ghana), the two top-scoring forwards in qualifying, are the best of Africans in India. Furthermore, watch out for Guinea defender Issiaga Camara, who, at the age of 14 years and 10 months, is the youngest player in the competition.
In the past, the U-17 World Cup has seen several players shine, or showcase a glimpse of their brilliance, for the first time in the global limelight. Among those are world-renowned players like Ronaldinho, Francesco Totti, Luis Figo, Xavi Hernandez, Toni Kroos, Cesc Fabregas and Neymar, who is the world’s costliest player today.
It is finally India’s turn to witness this first-hand, and set the ball rolling for future legends of football.
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