When India take the field against the United States in the opening match of the Fifa Under-17 World Cup in New Delhi on 6 October, it will be the first time the second-most populous nation in the world will be represented at a football World Cup.
Fifa World Cup began in 1930 when Uruguay played host to the men’s edition of what would become quadrennial world championships. In the 87 years since, India never managed to qualify for any of the Fifa-affiliated international tournaments, so the 11 players taking the field against the US are set to make history.
Participation is one thing, but what are the chances of the Indian youngsters progressing to the knockout stage of their home tournament?
The tournament will see 24 teams vying for the World Cup. There are six groups comprising four teams each. Each team in a group will play the other three once, after which the top two will automatically qualify for the round of 16, while of the six teams that finish third in their respective groups, the best four will join the group winners and runners-up in the first knockout round.
The hosts have been pitted against Ghana, Colombia and the US in Group A. All three teams have well-established pedigree in Fifa World Cups, at both senior as well as Under-17 levels. Ghana have won the tournament twice, in 1991 and 1995; Colombia have two fourth-placed finishes, while the US notched the fourth spot in 1999. At the senior level, all three teams are regular qualifiers to the quadrennial Fifa extravaganza.
India are relative minnows and it will be trial by fire for India to play that quality of opposition, especially as they lack the requisite experience.
While most countries have well-established age-group leagues to select youngsters, India—in the absence of any such pre-existing infrastructure—had to scamper in order to assemble a squad capable of competing at the level of a World Cup.
The preparations for the youth national team got a major setback when coach Nicolai Adam, who had started working with the Indian youth set-up in February 2015, was forced to resign from his post in January this year after 21 players revolted against him.
In his stead came Portuguese coach Luis Norton de Matos, who in his limited time at the helm and with such a raw squad, has done his best to arrange practice matches against other youth international and club sides to test the quality of players and also to figure out the combinations that would best suit his bunch.
Needless to say, preparations in the lead-up to India’s first ever Fifa World Cup have been far from ideal and de Matos will need to make the best out of the situation at hand. The three other teams in India’s group rank much higher not just in terms of technical skill but also experience of having played at a high level for a long time. It will undoubtedly give them an edge over the hosts, who, if matches under de Matos are anything to go by and as is the wont of inferior teams against superior rivals, will look to keep their defensive shape intact and feed on any counter-attacking opportunities that they get.
The Indian team might be lacking in skill and experience, but they will certainly be buoyed by the fact that they are the first from the country to play in a football World Cup. They will also be egged on by what is likely to be a raucous home support in New Delhi, where India are scheduled to play all their group games.
India’s opening match against the US is the best chance for them to cause an upset and start the tournament on a high. If they manage to take all three points from the encounter, their chances of making the last 16 will be greatly enhanced. After all, finishing third could also be enough for advancing to the knockout rounds.
However, realistically, India are perhaps the weakest of the 24 teams in the tournament. It won’t be surprising if the hosts are unable to register any points on the board. And there would be no shame in that.
The tournament should best be treated as a great launchpad for not just the young footballers who make up the India squad, but also as a test for the administrators in charge of delivering a successful tournament, with plans afoot to bid for the Under-20 World Cup in three years’ time.