Soccer’s turn

Print edition : December 08, 2017

The England team celebrating after beating Spain in the final at the Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata on October 28. Photo: K.R. DEEPAK

The Spainish team before the World Cup final between England and Spain at Salt Lake Stadium. Photo: K.R. DEEPAK

England's Rhian Brewster won the tournament's Golden Boot, Brazil's goalkeeper Gabriel Brazao the Golden Glove, and England's Philip Foden the Golden Ball. Photo: K.R. DEEPAK

Jeakson Singh created history by becoming the first Indian to score in a World Cup football match when he netted the ball with a magnificent header from Sanjeev Stalin's cross during the group match against Colombia in New Delhi on October 9. Photo: MANVENDER VASISHT/PTI

Jeakson Singh celebrating after the goal. Photo: MANVENDER VASISHT//PTI

The Under-17 FIFA World Cup, which India hosted, was a huge success, and it has given the game a big boost in the country.

IT was a fitting finale to what is being hailed as the most successful edition, as far as spectator attendance goes, in the history of the FIFA Under-17 World Cup. The stage was set on October 28, in the first-ever all-European final, for England to have its revenge on Spain who beat it in the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) European Under-17 Championship in May this year. And England won it in grand style, defeating its rival 5-2. It was England’s first ever FIFA Under-17 World Cup championship victory. Earlier this year, it had also won the FIFA Under-20 World Cup.

Before a capacity crowd of 66,684 in Kolkata’s Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan, better known as the Salt Lake stadium, it initially appeared that Spain would continue its dominance over England when Sergio Gomes scored two goals within the first 30 minutes of the game. England struck back before half-time, with the tournament’s Golden Boot winner Rhian Brewster of Liverpool FC finding the back of the net. Until half-time, Spain clearly appeared to be the dominant team, but when the boys took the field for the second half, England seized control of the match.

Morgan Gibbs-White scored the equaliser in the 58th minute, and the talented young midfielder Philip Foden put England in the lead in the 69th minute. England then extended its lead, with Marc Guehi scoring in the 84th minute and Foden striking again four minutes later. Foden, a product of the football academy of the English Premier League giant Manchester City, played a key role throughout the tournament in England’s triumph and received the Golden Ball.

England had come up imperiously to the final and was the only team not to have lost a single match. Kolkata’s favourite Brazil dazzled football lovers with its brand of Samba magic but broke their hearts when it crashed out in the semi-finals, losing to England 3-1. In the other semi-final, Spain beat the last edition’s finalist Mali 3-1. In the fight for the third place, Brazil prevailed over Mali 2-0.

Tournament record

Hosting the FIFA Under-17 World Cup was a milestone in the history of Indian football. After languishing in relative neglect for several decades, Indian football was able to ignite the kind of public passion and fervour generally reserved for cricket and was able to bring the crowds back to the stadiums. The total number of spectators was 12,80,459, a record for the tournament. The earlier record was 12,30,976 in 1985, when the first FIFA Under-17 World Cup was held in China.

The huge success of the tournament led FIFA president Gianni Infantino to state: “India has arrived as a footballing nation.” Hosting the World Cup compelled the Indian government to boost existing infrastructure. Earlier, there was not a single venue in the country suitable for a World Cup game; now there are six. “In terms of infrastructure and passion for the game, India now has the ability to host any major tournament,” said Jaime Yarza, Head of FIFA Tournaments. The success of the Under-17 World Cup has prompted India to bid for the FIFA Under-20 World Cup to be held in 2019. Although Infantino remained non-committal about India’s bid, he did acknowledge that its successful hosting of the Under-17 World cup “will certainly be an element” to be considered when the host for the Under-20 World Cup is selected and announced in early 2018. “Football is the future in India. This Under-17 World Cup has shown that India has not only become a football country, but a football continent. We need a legacy to build upon this,” Infantino said at a press conference in Kolkata.

The All India Football Federation (AIFF) has made it clear that it intends to make the most of the boost that Indian football has received. “Besides giving us the confidence that we are capable of hosting such a World Cup, it also gives us an understanding that we can actually build a world-class Indian team with our boys,” said AIFF president Praful Patel.

This was the first time that India participated in a football World Cup. Even though the Indian team had not been able to qualify, it was able to take part because it won the bid to host the tournament. The team failed to progress past the group stage of the tournament, losing 0-3 to the United States, 1-2 to Colombia and 0-4 to Ghana. However, experts feel there is no need to be disheartened about the team’s performance as the experience and the lessons it learnt will stand it in good stead. “You have to understand that this was the first time that India played at such a high level. We were exposed to absolutely top-quality football, and we were in such a tough group. In spite of that, I will say the boys played well and tried hard. It was an eye-opener for us. We have seen the standard and we should not see our effort as a bad performance. We have the potential and can do well in the future,” the legendary Indian footballer of yesteryear Shyam Thapa, who is also chairman of the Technical Committee of the AIFF, told Frontline.

Against the highly rated Colombian team, the Indian boys put up a tremendous show and went down fighting. Sixteen-year-old Jeakson Singh created history by becoming the first Indian to score in a World Cup football match when he netted the ball with a magnificent header from Sanjeev Stalin’s cross. It was a moment of triumph for Indian football; the entire nation rose up in applause. “We now have to prepare to qualify on our own steam, for it will not be possible for India to keep winning bids to host international football events,” said Thapa. Pointing out that the event had created a buzz about the sport, he said it was now time to popularise football like cricket. Praful Patel feels that the most immediate and biggest challenge for the AIFF is to “change the demographics of football in India”. “We don’t have a pan-India footprint, and despite the game being popular, it is not played all over. The game needs to be played across the length and breadth,” he said. The AIFF has announced that it will set up a centre of excellence, for which the government of West Bengal has assured it of 15 acres of land in Kolkata.

Thapa feels that Indian football cannot be put on the world map overnight, but it is imperative that India not rest on its laurels after the success of hosting the Under-17 World Cup. “In the next five to seven years, we must try to be the best in Asia. We were the best in Asia once, so there is no reason why we cannot be so again. This is a beginning. Now the AIFF will have to take it forward,” said Thapa.

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