U-17 World Cup begins today: Test for hosts India, in more ways than one
Mumbai: At the D.Y. Patil Sports Academy in Navi Mumbai, in various parts of the massive complex, small drills are being carried out on Wednesday morning, two days before the start of the FIFA Under-17 football World Cup.
Roughly 250 young volunteers have been at work here for about a month, many on a break from their colleges. Around 1,000 policemen are on duty since the beginning of the week, according to a policeman at the complex.
At different sections, someone is sweeping, putting up a sign, mowing the lawns, waiting or just looking worried. The New Zealand team practices for a little over an hour on one of the training grounds, watched by half-a-dozen policemen and some volunteers in humid conditions.
It’s the proverbial calm before the storm.
Starting Friday, 24 countries will compete for the U-17 World Cup, to be played from 6-28 October—one of the biggest global tournaments ever hosted by India. Fifty-two matches will be played across six venues over 22 days.
The hosts will play their first match against the US at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi—Colombia and Ghana are the other teams in Group A. The US finished fourth in 1999, Ghana have won the title twice and Colombia have finished third twice.
India, playing in a football World Cup (of any kind) for the first—and possibly—the last time in the foreseeable future unless it hosts the U-20 World Cup in 2019—qualified for the tournament by virtue of being the host.
The tournament is as much about India’s ability to pull off a tournament of this scale as it is about the young team’s capability to take on the traditional big guns of the sport.
Costing about Rs350-400 crore, funded by state and central governments, FIFA subsidies, ticket sales and “national supporters” such as Byju’s, Bank of Baroda, Hero MotoCorp Ltd, Coal India Ltd, Dalmia Cement Bharat Ltd and NTPC Ltd, the tournament is expected to catalyse the sport in the country.
According to World Cup project director Joy Bhattacharya, the ambition of the effort is to make football ubiquitous in India.
The central government sanctioned Rs95 crore for the development of infrastructure in the six venues, says Kushal Das, general secretary of the All India Football Federation. The respective state governments spent additionally—West Bengal invested in building a stadium in Kolkata.
Already, 24 training sites have been developed, each with two dressing rooms and floodlights, to later become hubs for smaller tournaments. “The pitches are as good as anywhere in the world, they have to be,” adds Bhattacharya.
Ticket sales nationwide have crossed 400,000, “which is a serious number. We are selling 20,000 a day. For an age group tournament, that’s unprecedented”, he says. About 22,000 tickets had been sold till Wednesday for Friday’s two matches in Navi Mumbai, according to an organizer.
The significance of the tournament lies in the fact that its past editions have launched stars such as Brazil’s Neymar (played U-17 in 2009) and Ronaldinho (Brazil won the U-17 title in 1997), Spain’s Andres Iniesta (2001) and Xavi Hernandez (1997), Italy’s Alessandro del Piero (1991) and Portugal’s Luis Figo (1989) among several others.
India won the bid to host in 2013 and since then, the team’s preparations have not been without bumps and swerves. In the two-and-a-half years of planning, at the expense of an estimated Rs25-30 crore, according to Bhattacharya, the team played over 60 matches and toured an unprecedented number of countries.
The team would enjoy the advantage of being hosts and local conditions, but that would only get them so far. “There is no place to hide at this level,” says New Zealand coach Danny Hay about the level of the competition.