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FIFA U-17 World Cup: Don’t expect it to usher in a football renaissance in India

Participating in their first-ever football World Cup in any age group India have a chance to prove their credentials as a footballing nation and also as FIFA U-17 World Cup hosts. But this won’t transform Amarjit Singh Kiyam’s team into world-beaters overnight.

analysis Updated: Oct 04, 2017 12:57 IST
Aasheesh Sharma
Aasheesh Sharma
Hindustan Times
FIFA Under-17 World Cup,Indian national football team,All India Football Federation
In the run-up to the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup, the government reportedly spent Rs 100 crore giving a makeover to Kolkata’s Salt Lake Stadium itself. (HT)

Beginning October 6, the FIFA U-17 World Cup kicks off in Delhi and Mumbai on the opening day, followed by matches in Goa, Kochi, Kolkata and Guwahati. The occasion is unprecedented for India in more ways than one. In the past 87 years, ever since World Cups began being held across senior and age-group football, we have neither played nor hosted even one of the 77 editions.

The infrastructure for the FIFA U-17 World Cup is in place well in time, unlike the Commonwealth Games of 2010, the last big-ticket event that we played host to. So, the Cup is an opportunity to prove our credentials as hosts to the world. In the run-up to the Cup, the Centre spent Rs 100 crore giving a makeover to the Salt Lake Stadium itself. But in case you believe that the mere creation of sports infrastructure will catalyse our players to become world-beaters overnight or spark a football revolution in the country, your optimism is misplaced.

Placed in a tough group along with formidable names such as USA, Columbia and two-time champions Ghana, India are by a distance, the weakest team in the 24-team competition. Even their head coach believes they’ll be fortunate if they emerge from the league stage without being defeated.

Although the current bunch of players has got extensive international exposure in the last three years – they’ve played more than 50 friendly matches against second-rung squads in Germany, Spain, UAE, South Africa, Luxembourg, France, Norway, Italy, Hungary, Brazil, Portugal, Russia and Mexico – their preparation has been far from ideal.

Germany’s Nicolai Adam, the team’s head coach since 2015, was abruptly asked to step down seven months before the tournament to be replaced by Portugal’s Luis Norton de Matos. On top of it, the campaign has received criticism for the All India Football Federation’s haphazard planning and allegations of age cheating, with many domestic teams fielding players much over the prescribed age limit.

By the time the final is played in Kolkata on October 28, it will be clear to aficionados in the country– including those in football-crazy states such as Kerala, Goa, West Bengal and all of North-East – whether our boys – India’s first ever team to play in a World Cup — belong at the world stage. From an organisational perspective, we’ll know whether India can pull-off hosting a highest-billed FIFA extravaganza without too many hiccups and salvage some of the reputation tarnished during Commonwealth 2010.

Still, it is unlikely the tournament alone will usher in a football renaissance in the country. There is a palpable lack of programmes designed to spot talent at the grassroots or quality age-group events. But if the federation invests in this group of boys led by Manipuri midfielder Amarjit Singh Kiyam for the long haul and grooms them for senior-level events, the 130 crores that the government has spent on the event could be money well spent.

@Aasheesh74

aasheesh.sharma@hindustantimes.com

First Published: Oct 04, 2017 11:31 IST