Indian football’s moment of reckoning is here
New Delhi : 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 today’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. 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.
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 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 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
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.