Will U-17 World Cup kick-off India’s tryst with football?
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Will U-17 World Cup kick-off India’s tryst with football?

It must seem deeply ironical that while Praful Patel could bring the U-17 World Cup to the country, as as president of the WIFA, he could not win a game for Mumbai.

mumbai Updated: Oct 05, 2017 19:05 IST
Ayaz Memon
Ayaz Memon
Hindustan Times
Mumbai,Fifa Under-17 World Cup,Navi Mumbai
Not impossible to bag a spot in senior World Cup — if we dare to dream!

Every mainline newspaper on Thursday was flush with stories on the Fifa Under-17 Football World Cup that kicks off in the capital today. So profuse has been the coverage that it would be the envy of even cricket, otherwise the staple of Indian sports fans.

Why, the young men who will wear India colours are already more recognizable than those who play for the senior team! My only lament in the excitement and expectation surrounding the Fifa U-17 World Cup is that no match will be played in Mumbai.

While Kolkata, Goa and Kerala have been bastions of the sport, Mumbai wasn’t too far behind. The Rovers Cup was a coveted blue riband annual fixture. Thousands of fans — including big businessmen, film stars and politicians — would throng the Cooperage for the tournament.

It must seem deeply ironical that while Praful Patel, president of the All India Football President could bring the U-17 World Cup to the country, as president of the Western India Football Association and a powerful politician, he could not win a game for Cooperage.

Patel tried, of course, but Fifa, football’s world governing body, is unrelentingly fastidious about amenities/facilities where the playing facilities and safety norms are concerned. Cooperage unfortunately did not meet their criterion.

Attempts to bring Cooperage up to the requisite standard ran into hassles with several opposing groups, and the deadline passed. My miff, however, is that these efforts at redemption came belatedly, not as foresight.

For donkeys years, Cooperage remained a ramshackle stadium when it could have been easily improved upon — after winning over all opposing groups by finding a meeting ground — to become the best for the sport, perhaps in the country.

There was ample scope for making a world-class venue. Sadly, over the years, it has earned more renown for gala weddings than the home of Mumbai football, which is a big letdown for fans and the city’s proud sports legacy.

With Cooperage out of the picture, the option was to have the Andheri Sports Complex as a venue for the U-17 World Cup, but this too was found inadequate, largely for the difficult access to the complex.

Fortunately, Mumbai’s young sibling Navi Mumbai came to the rescue. The DY Patil Sports Complex at Nerul, which has hosted IPL and ISL matches in the past, was given the green signal by Fifa officials when they did a recce for the U-17 World Cup.

This was only possible because the DY Patil management moved swiftly to make it Fifa-worthy, spending money on the modifications needed, including having world quality practice pitches, dressing rooms et al.

It obviously helped that DY Patil stadium is privately owned and administered. This eliminates bureaucratic hurdles and cuts down decision-making time drastically. But as Dr Vijay Patil, who runs the complex says, it all stems with the passion for sport. That is the crux.

To come back to why the U-17 World Cup is hogging the headlines, I believe it is because awareness of sport is rapidly — and happily — growing in India.

The sense of pride associated with excelling at sports, embodying the soft power of the country is now inspiring young Indian minds and bodies to shrug off lethargy — a national malaise — and get down to playing.

This has been manifested in the surge in badminton, kabbadi, wrestling, shooting and other disciplines: not just in the number of winners and medallists, but in the growing number of youngsters taking to these sports.

Football, however, had been languishing though the first 15 years after Independence were heady. India qualified for the World Cup (1950), finished fourth in the 1956 Olympics and won the gold in the 1951 and 1961 Asian Games.

But progress thereafter was stunted. India’s current ranking is 107; not as bad as it was a few years ago when it was hovering in the 170s, but dismal nonetheless. In the context, the U-17 World Cup is widely perceived as a watershed moment for the sport in the country.

It would be far-fetched to believe that India will finish on the podium in the U-17 World Cup. But a good performance in the tournament promises to revive India’s love affair with the world’s most popular game, give the sport new thrust in the country.

Hopefully at some stage even leading to a place in the Fifa senior World Cup. Not impossible if we dare to dream!

First Published: Oct 05, 2017 19:05 IST