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India will play their first match against the US on Friday at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi. Photo: Ravi Choudhary/Hindustan Times
India will play their first match against the US on Friday at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi. Photo: Ravi Choudhary/Hindustan Times

What this U-17 World Cup could mean for Indian footballers

India will play its first football World Cup and, whatever its performance, hosting will offer other benefits

On Friday, Amarjit Singh Kiyam will create a bit of history that every Indian football captain—past, present and future—will envy. Kiyam will lead the Indian team to their first football World Cup match at any level when they play the US in New Delhi.

India are making their World Cup debut as the host nation of the Under-17 Fifa tournament. The fact that they have never played in the sport’s showpiece event has been a sore point not just for footballers but for other athletes, including cricketers, and fans.

“We were three fans of Argentina watching a World Cup game at a pub in London. We cheered every good move that Argentina made and this irritated one of the English fans. He walked up to us and said, ‘Even if there were three world cups (with 36 teams) going on simultaneously, you still wouldn’t be playing in either of them,’" remembers former Test cricketer Deep Dasgupta.

“It really hurt, and all the more because it was true.... In 2008, India were 130s-140s in Fifa rankings."

This tournament isn’t the big one with the world’s top footballers, but it is the biggest leap for football in the country.

Cynics may dismiss this outing as a tournament for children and may even deride the team if they don’t manage to make it through the group stages, which seems likely. But this exposure on the big stage against the best in the world is crucial for players to dream big, grow the game, gain crucial experience as well as improve football facilities and following in the country.

India captain Sunil Chhetri told the press last month that he would be willing to trade 15 years of playing football for the experience this tournament will offer.

Bhaichung Bhutia, arguably India’s most famous and charismatic footballer, agrees: “I would have played with the best in the world, which would have given me a fair idea as to where exactly I stand as an individual player and as a team vis-à-vis the rest of the world."

Of the popular ball games for which there are world cups, India have only qualified for and played in hockey and cricket. Cricketers such as Yuvraj Singh and Irfan Pathan, who have played youth world cups, acknowledge how vital these tournaments were.

“It gives young talent an opportunity to test themselves against the best sportspersons of the same age category from across the world. This also means that their respective countries get an idea of how these players can deliver for the senior teams as well," says Yuvraj Singh, who has been a part of teams that won the Under-19, T20 and ICC world cups.

Two of India’s brightest hockey colts, Harmanpreet Singh and Dipsan Tirkey, captain and vice-captain, respectively, of the 2016 Junior World Cup-winning hockey team, grew up dreaming of playing for India. But their first goal was making it to the junior world cup team. After missing a spot in the squad in 2013, Tirkey’s focus was last year’s tournament.

“I knew that doing well in the junior world cup would help me make the transition to the senior team and that’s what has happened. I got a call for the senior team soon after," Tirkey recalls.

For four years continuously, the only thing on Harmanpreet Singh’s mind was lifting the World Cup. “I believe today, if I am considered a good defender and drag-flicker, it is because of the strong base and exposure we got during the junior team days," he says.

Now, in the absence of drag-flick specialist Rupinder Pal Singh, Harmanpreet Singh will lead the penalty corner attempts at the Asia Cup starting 11 October.

Similar success stories are expected from the first batch of Indian footballers who will participate in the U-17 World Cup this year.

Yuvraj Singh says quality and talent decide how you play and win in youth tournaments. But when it comes to the biggest tournaments in your sport, you play and win on the basis of experience, and the way you adapt to different situations.

“Playing in the Under-19 World Cup gave me a huge confidence boost, which helped me deal with the pressure and expectations that come when you make it to the senior team. That was the reason I was able to succeed at the highest level of the game," says Irfan Pathan, who was part of the Under-19 and T20 world cup-winning teams.

India’s World Cup debut has collateral benefits that go beyond boosting the footballers’ confidence, experience and learning. As Fifa U-17 World Cup project director Joy Bhattacharya puts it, “Just hosting an event like this develops a series of things for football in India.

“It brings in investment, and hence development, in infrastructure and the youth system. The host cities now have world-class playing surfaces at stadiums."

Twenty-six training sites have been set up across India with state-of-the-art facilities as good as the World Cup stadiums. Out of these, 15 are owned by private institutions that give access to better training facilities to a huge number of present and future footballers, says Bhattacharya.

As the host nation, India benefited from Fifa’s pitch improvement programme, under which some groundsmen have been trained by Fifa experts. “It’s not a big number but it’s a start. The few groundsmen who were trained under this programme now know how to prepare a pitch for match day and how to maintain it regularly when there are no games," adds Bhattacharya.

Best of all, this has given India a pool of talented young footballers. “These young boys have lived and played together for almost nine months. There are 60-70 young footballers who are good and are improving every day," he says.

He brings up the Brazilian Vinícius Júnior, who at 16 has already been signed by Real Madrid for €46 million (around Rs350 crore) and will be in action here. “He is sure to have a great career and is already among the best in the world. Playing a tournament full of such talented future stars is a great learning experience for the Indian team, which has been holding its own against strong oppositions for some time now."

India are in a tough group, with the US, Colombia and Ghana. The team’s coach, Luis Norton de Matos, admits there is “a 5% chance of achieving a positive result in those games".

“I don’t think any sportsperson goes into a tournament thinking that they cannot win it, otherwise half the battle is already lost. There are certain minnow teams in every tournament, but as a player it is important to never give up," says Yuvraj Singh.

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