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FIFA U-17 World Cup impact: Hope afloat as Indian football gets a leg-up

The turnout and viewership figures for the FIFA U-17 World Cup should spur state and central governments to invest in football.

football Updated: Nov 30, 2017 15:41 IST
Dhiman Sarkar & Bhargab Sarmah
Dhiman Sarkar & Bhargab Sarmah
Hindustan Times, Kolkata/New Delhi
football,FIFA U-17 World Cup,All India Football Federation
The FIFA U-­17 World Cup that India hosted in October saw record viewership, which crossed 47 million.(Samir Jana/HT Photo)

More than 1.3 million people attended the FIFA U-17 World Cup India hosted in October, beating the 2011 cricket World Cup attendance by more than a hundred-thousand. The TV viewership crossed 47 million, according to Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC).

The turnout and the viewership figures have raised hopes of football in India getting an unprecedented leg-up, but players, coaches and football federation officials are sceptical about one event transmogrifying India into a country that shines on the pitch.

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Richard Hood, head of player development at the All India Football Federation (AIFF), feels it will take more than the buzz of a 22-day tournament to address culture-based issues in the country.

“Our biggest problems are that we start too late, have no-multi-tier, multi-age-group local leagues (in states) that are designed to deliver 40+ weeks of competition and no legacy or history... to create players for leading AFC (Asian) Champions League-level clubs,” he said.

India recorded a total stadium attendance of 1,347,133 in 52 matches, making it the most watched FIFA youth event ever whereas the 2011 cricket World Cup had an attendance of 1,229,826 in 49 matches held across three countries.

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It was, “a top, top tournament,” said Steve Cooper, coach of world champions England.

Leaving India — and not exiting the competition — made teams unhappy, says Fifa’s head of tournaments, Jaime Yarza, in half jest.

What India got from the under-17 World Cup
It became the most-watched Fifa youth event surpassing the under-20 World Cup in Colombia
TIES CEMENTED
26 training grounds with floodlights in six cities that hosted World Cup games.
6 stadia were refurbished by state governments. The Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata, which hosted 11 games including the final, had the maximum spent on it: Rs 120 crore approximately
5 new corporate partners invested in football: Coal India, Dalmia Cement, NTPC, BYJU’s and Bank of Baroda. The sixth, Hero MotorCorp, are title sponsors of the ISL, the I-League and the national teams.
2,431km The distance between Kochi’s Nehru stadium and Guwahati’s Indira Gandhi stadium was approx 2,431 km, the farthest between venues in the under-17 World Cup’s history.
183 A world record 183 goals was scored in 52 games.
It took the combined effort of multiple agencies of the Union government and six state governments to pull this off. "Add to that the government of Fifa," said a Fifa official. India showed that it could be done with stadia and training grounds ready before Fifa deadlines.

That should have a positive effect. “It should change the perception of the football world towards India. And it has wiped out the negativity associated with the Commonwealth Games,” said Shaji Prabhakaran, president of the Delhi Soccer Association and a former Fifa officer in charge of south and central Asia.

Disadvantage India

But successfully hosting a tournament is easier than improving India’s overall performance in football. Even if it is to be assumed that India has a sport culture — the recently-retired India bowler Ashish Nehra spoke about stars being more revered than the sport — football hardly finds prominence.

“The player that emerges at the highest professional level is a direct product of the culture that is embedded at home… and the larger game community,” Hood said.

That makes it more difficult for India than poorer African countries to emerge on the global scene as football in these countries is a way of life. “Africa has a lot of quality… we (of Mali) have the same ability (as Europeans),” said Jonas Komla, who coached Mali to semi-finals of the under-17 World Cup.

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In ‘Feet of the Chameleon’, a book on football in Africa, author Ian Hawkey says the first African footballer to make it in Europe was in 1938. Moroccan Ben Barek, who played for Marseille and France, became an inspiration for a continent. Football being part of the social narrative also meant that post-colonial African leaders understood its power, says Hawkey.

Countries such as the United States of America, where football isn’t the sport of choice, are trying to change things by developing leagues and investing in youth. Its annual budget for 2016-17 on youth national teams is $8.8m (approximately ~57 crore).

The AIFF’s annual budget is ~65 crore and it organises under-13, under-15 and under-18 leagues along with a two-tier I-League — India’s apex competition, holds national championships in youth and senior categories, and runs an academy in Goa. It plans to start a baby league (for children above five) this term, said general secretary Kushal Das.

The top division of the national league is over two decades old, but structured youth competitions, coaches’ education programmes and grassroots development are phrases the AIFF, its state affiliates and clubs have just begun to grasp.

“The under-17 World Cup has showed us what class athletes are capable of. The lead we can take from this is to understand that we need to develop an indigenous workforce to take the game forward and develop our own national identity,” said Hood.

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Japan is aiming for that identity with an ambitious long-term plan. And after England trumped the world, Cooper spoke about having done it the ‘English way’.

Infrastructure And More

The World Cup has also given India 26 new training grounds and six stadia that got more than a facelift. “The infrastructure outside the stadium will be the biggest test for the legacy of this World Cup,” said Prabhakaran.

With the Indian Super League (ISL) making multiple teams mandatory, ideally three training grounds will be needed and using the World Cup facilities would save costs for franchises, said an official with Chennaiyin FC. It’s early days but barring the Kerala Football Association (KFA), everyone was short on specifics when HT asked stakeholders if they had a plan to utilise the training pitches.

Prabhakaran felt the success of the World Cup would spur state and central governments to invest in football. “Fifa has lauded the conduct of this tournament and such positivity should make it easier to convince governments,” he said.

A start has been made. Land was promised in a heartbeat by Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee for the AIFF’s Centre of Excellence, and Hemendra Nath Brahma, president of the Assam Football Association, said the state government will build an academy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi too has said the buzz should not end with the World Cup.

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If governments buy into football, the corporate world should follow, like it happened in China. “India’s lack of achievement in football may not be a deterrent as industry captains have seen how the country took to the World Cup,” said Prabhakaran.

“We hadn’t thought we would get more than two national partners but filled all six slots allotted. One of our partners, Hero MotoCorp, has trebled their contribution to football in India and a lot of it has to do with the World Cup,” Das said, adding that the national sponsors for the under-17 World Cup gave approximately Rs 50 crore.

The AIFF hopes to use the tournament as a springboard for hosting bigger tournaments in future, with federation chief Praful Patel vowing to “make good use of the goodwill” from the event in its bid to host the 2019 U-20 World Cup.

The under-17 World Cup has had positives worth building on but it would be remiss of us not to remember that India finished last in the competition. Improvement, therefore, is going to be challenging.

First Published: Nov 30, 2017 10:14 IST