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Under-17 World Cup: Indian football’s moment of reckoning is here

The Indian football Under-17 team during a training session.

The Indian football Under-17 team during a training session.   | Photo Credit: AIFF Media

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Once called the “sleeping giants” by FIFA, India have not exactly woken up to the potential that the world body saw.

Propelled from the rear end to the centrestage by virtue of being hosts, “sleeping giants” India would be eyeing a football revolution with the FIFA under-17 World Cup — a tournament which promises to deliver the stars of tomorrow.

Delhi and Mumbai will play host to tomorrow’s four opening day games, including one featuring the home side. But the tournament’s significance for the country will go beyond the results that will come on the field.

Once called the “sleeping giants” by FIFA, India have not exactly woken up to the potential that the world body saw.

FIFA has since rephrased it to “passionate giants” and all the right noises have been made to insist that India are inching in the right direction.

First ever FIFA World Cup

Hosting the first FIFA World Cup ever, India would be home to the prodigal talent, that makes international football fascinating and exhilarating in equal measure, this month.

Brazil’s Vinicius Junior, who is set to join world football club giants Real Madrid next year, is missing after his club refused to release him. But there are still enough names to mesmerise the football fans in the 24-team showpiece which will run till October 28 across six cities.

England winger Jadon Sancho, American striker Josh Sargent, Abel Ruiz, Ferran Torres of Spain and German captain Jann-Fiete Arp, who have already become the hot properties in club football, are all there.

Rubbing shoulders with these budding stars will be 21 Indian boys who will become the first footballers of this country to play in any FIFA World Cup.

In fact, a total of 504 young hopefuls would begin to dream of following in the footsteps of famous graduates of the tournament, such as Neymar Jr, Ronaldinho, Luis Figo, Xavi, Iker Casillas, Gianluigi Buffon and Andres Iniesta, to name a few.

Fifth Asian country to host

India will become the fifth Asian country — after China, Japan, South Korea and UAE — to host the tournament which was started in 1985.

More than sixty years after India declined the invitation to participate in the 1950 FIFA World Cup in Uruguay (when it was an invitational tournament), refusing to play in shoes, the country would be fielding a team in a World Cup.

The likes of captain Amarjit Singh Kiyam, Komal Thatal and Aniket Jadhav will thus accomplish a feat, which eluded legends like Bhaichung Bhutia, I M Vijayan and Sunil Chhetri.

With poor infrastructure, nearly non-existent grassroot and youth development and quality coaching system, India have hardly ever been a force even at the regional level.

But the the All India Football Federation and some former players see this tournament as the beginning of a revival of a glorious past of the 1950s and 1960s when India ruled Asia and made their presence felt at the world stage as well.

A successful hosting of the U-17 World Cup is sure to open up chances of other bigger events like the U-20 FIFA World Cup, for which the country has made a bid for the 2019 edition.

With 52 matches to be played in six venues, the event will be watched by a global audience of 200 million.

The FIFA, in its bid to expand the game to new frontiers, allotted the U-17 World Cup to India in December 2013. For a country, which has nearly one sixth of humanity and largest number of youth, it’s quite apt to host the youngest World Cup.

India are rank outsiders

India are for sure the rank outsiders in the 17th edition of the tournament and they are unlikely to get past the group stage.

They are placed in a tough Group A along with United States, Colombia and two—time champions Ghana. India’s main target as has been indicated by the head coach Luis Morton de Matos would be to be competitive and not to concede goals.

Two group toppers and four best third place finishers will qualify for the knock—out round and India are not expected to be one of them.

Three-time champions Brazil, European winners Spain and Mexico are the hot favourites to lift the trophy while two- time champions Ghana, Germany, England and United States will also fancy their chances to go all the way in the tournament.

African champions Mali and technically sound and creative Colombia could be the dark horses. In the absence of Vinicius Junior, another Flamengo youth team player Lincoln Correa dos Santos will be the man leading the Brazilians from the front. A versatile player, the 16-year-old Lincoln can play on both wings of the pitch but he prefers playing as a centre forward.

Lincoln helped Brazil U-17 win the South American Under-17 Championship to qualify for India, scoring five goals in eight matches. There are other players of high calibre in the Brazil team like striker Paulinho which made them one of the hot favourites.

‘Tiki-taka’ style of play

Spain’s ‘tiki-taka’ style of play will be something to look forward to. They have wonderkids like Barcelona’s youth team player and captain Abel Ruiz and Valencia starlet Ferran Torres.

Ruiz is an attacking player and was one of the La Masia talents courted by top premier league clubs like Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea.

He racked up a record 16 goals in the recently-concluded EURO U-17 competition and is considered one of the most exciting talents in the country. It was under his leadership that Spain won their ninth UEFA European U-17 Championships earlier this year.

Apart from giving the world some of its future stars, the tournament would be expected to leave a positive legacy for its hosts.

Infrastructure will be the biggest of them all as this will make all the six stadia FIFA—approved venues to be used for later events.

Most of all, India would be hoping to make the transition from “sleeping giants” to active fighters by the time the party winds up in Kolkata.

India already winners in U-17 WC: FIFA’s deputy secretary

India are already the winners irrespective of how the results pan out on the field, says FIFA’s deputy secretary and Croatian football legend Zvonimir Boban, as the country gears up to host the U—17 World Cup.

India’s first-ever FIFA tournament kicks off on Friday with matches in Delhi and Mumbai. The host nation will take on USA at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium here.

“Regardless of the actual results on the pitch, India are already winners as they have been able to prepare this event.

Football has taken over, and the Indian players are benefitting from a unique experience,” Boban, who captained Croatia to a remarkable third-place finish at the 1998 FIFA World Cup, told PTI in an interview.

India drawn with bigger teams

While India could have drawn much bigger teams, USA, Ghana and Colombia are formidable opponents at this age group.

Boban led a team that included Golden Boot winner Davor Suker.

When asked how crucial the host nation’s performance could be in the tournament, the 48-year-old added, “Today, the FIFA U-17 World Cup is difficult for all teams as the level of football has steadily increased in recent years.

Boban, who played as an attacking midfielder, said football infrastructure will benefit immensely from the tournament.

Infrastructure one of the aspects that will benefit

“Football infrastructure is indeed one of the aspects that will benefit from the FIFA U-17 World Cup. On one hand, the improved infrastructure will facilitate the development of football in India at all levels, and on the other it will represent a great opportunity for club administrators, scouts and other football stakeholders to visit India, feel and experience the passion of the Indian football community and re-think their future strategies concerning India’s involvement.

“The AIFF, LOC and government efforts have been great and the current infrastructure will surely benefit the football structure in the years to come.”

A winner of four Serie A titles besides a UEFA Champions League triumph with AC Milan, Boban felt the tournament could help in developing a strong senior national team.

“The FIFA U-17 World Cup will undoubtedly be a major event for all players of the Indian national team as no other generation of Indian players has ever had such an experience.

“However, it’s also important to keep in mind that these players are just starting their careers and still have a long way to go in order to fully exploit their potential.

“Nevertheless, passionate players will devote more efforts in becoming even better players, so in the long run we will definitely see some improvements in the senior team.”

Strong presence in 1950s and 60s

Though Indian football had a strong presence in the 1950s and 60s, they slipped in the rankings over the years.

Following the U-17 World Cup, things could improve.

“I have no doubt that football will become an integral part of the culture of the Indian people. Football is closing the gap in the world and countries like India are demonstrating how important football tournaments can be for the overall development of our sport.

“By improving football infrastructure and bringing football to different segments of Indian society, this World Cup is already making a significant contribution to Indian football.

“Of course, this process needs to continue after the World Cup, and FIFA will be most happy to support it. Together with Mission XI Million, football will change the sporting culture in India for sure.”

Boban said the six venues are at par with international standards.

“The training grounds for this FIFA U-17 World Cup are great and we expect happy teams in all six venues. While the U-17 World Cup represents an important milestone for Indian football, more work will be needed to get to the next stage of football development.”

Having overcome many obstacles, FIFA is now hoping the tournament turns out to be the best-ever U-17 World Cup.

“We have faced different challenges, but nothing that could not be managed thanks to the assistance of the Indian government, the AIFF and the Local Organising Committee.

That’s precisely why it’s been so encouraging to see all the hard work being done to make this the best FIFA U-17 World Cup ever.”

On the tournament, he further said, “This World Cup can serve as a catalyst to further develop competitive football as well, which is fundamental when it comes to enhancing the popularity of football in a specific country and creating role models to inspire the younger generations.”

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Printable version | Jun 23, 2018 10:08:23 AM | http://www.thehindu.com/sport/football/under-17-world-cup-indian-footballs-moment-of-reckoning-is-here/article19801356.ece