Under-17 Football

World comes to Kolkata

Print edition : April 28, 2017

West Bengal Sports Minister Lakshmi Ratan Shukla (second from left) with Jaime Yarza (third), head of Tournament FIFA, and other officials after announcing the fixtures for the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017, at Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata on March 27. Photo: Swapan Mahapatra/PTI

Former Indian footballer Chuni Goswami (seen here with Pele): "The fact that the final will take place in Kolkata is a huge recognition for the city. As a football playing nation, we are all extremely proud." Photo: Swapan Mahapatra /PTI

Shyam Thapa, chairman of the AIFF Technical Committee, believes this is an ideal opportunity to take football forward as a sport in India. Photo: Ashok Bhaumik/PTI

The FIFA Under-17 World Cup, to be held in India in October, could be a great opportunity to develop football in the country.

IN the year 2009, a slightly built 17-year-old Brazilian lad flitted about the football field like a bird and scored a breathtaking goal that immediately marked him for greatness in the days to come. The event was the FIFA Under-17 World Cup and the boy’s name was Neymar. The goal was an emulation of the great football trick that Pele tried to pull off in the 1970 World Cup against Uruguay, when he utterly confused the goalkeeper by going round him in one direction while the ball went in another. Pele had narrowly missed the goal, but Neymar scored against Japan. Although the Under-17 Brazilian team crashed out of the tournament, the world saw the birth of a star.

Twelve years earlier, in 1997, Neymar’s illustrious predecessor, the legendary Ronaldinho, stamped his class on the pitch, helping Brazil win the Under-17 World Cup. Five years later, the 22-year-old Ronaldinho mesmerised the world with his magic as Brazil went on to win its fifth World Cup title. From Gianlugi Buffon (Italy), Xavi Hernandes (Spain) and Juan Veron (Argentina) to more recently Toni Kroos (Germany) and James Rodrigues (Colombia), the Under-17 World Cup has been a launching pad for many a great name in football. Indian football fans now will get the opportunity to witness directly the skills of football stars in the making. In a first, India is all set to host the 2017 Under-17 World Cup tournament, which is scheduled to be held from October 6 to October 28. By virtue of being the host, India will be playing in a FIFA World Cup tournament for the first time.

The Under-17 World Cup, which takes place every two years, was first held in China in 1985; it began as the Under-16 tournament. From 1991 onwards, it became an Under-17 event. Over the years, eight nations have been champions: Nigeria (1985, 1993, 2007, 2013, 2015), Brazil (1997, 1999, 2003), Ghana (1991, 1995), Mexico (2005, 2011), Soviet Union (1987), Saudi Arabia (1989), France (2001), and Switzerland (2009).

The latest edition of the Under-17 World Cup tournament will take place in six venues: the D.Y. Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai, the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi, the Nehru Stadium in Goa, the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi, the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium in Guwahati, and the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata. The final will be held in Kolkata, which has played a pioneering role in promoting football in the country and is widely recognised as the Mecca of Indian football.

India, whose history of football dates back over 100 years, has never once hosted a World Cup event, and the Under-17 tournament presents a golden opportunity for the country to take the game forward at an international level. Chuni Goswami, the legendary striker of yesteryear who led India to several feats of glory, including the Asian Games gold in 1962 and the runner-up prize in the 1964 AFC Asia Cup, told Frontline: “It is a great honour for India. Being the host we will have the opportunity to participate in the tournament, even though we had not qualified. This is a very important tournament in that the best of the players will be coming for this, and we are indeed very fortunate to be hosting it. The fact that the final will take place in Kolkata is a huge recognition for the city. As a football-playing nation, we are all extremely proud.”

The final confirmation of the venues came on March 27, after a week-long inspection tour by the FIFA and the Local Organising Committee (LOC) for the FIFA Under-17 World Cup. Announcing the match schedule in Kolkata, the head of FIFA Tournaments, Jaime Yarza, said: “The FIFA Under-17 World Cup is an exciting milestone for the growth of football in India and it has now reached a very important stage. The match schedule has been created after a thorough analysis of players’ health, competition format, team movements, weather, local festivities, geography and other factors. Each venue will host at least eight matches, and we took the existing infrastructure into account, as well as local enthusiasm.”

The two semi-finals will take place in Navi Mumbai and Guwahati, and the final and the third and fourth place matches will be played in Kolkata. Expressing his satisfaction with the work done at the Salt Lake Stadium, Yarza said: “The Salt Lake Stadium has set a benchmark, fulfilling all the high standards. When the renovation work is complete, it will be as good as the Maracana” (the iconic football stadium at Rio de Janeiro that hosted two FIFA World Cups).

Football City

Apart from the football-crazy public of Kolkata, there were several other factors behind the city’s selection. All India Football Federation (AIFF) vice president Subrata Dutta said: “The Salt Lake Stadium, with its 85,000 capacity, is sure to get filled. There are six training grounds, two inside the stadium premises and four adjacent to it, and the hotel is also inside the stadium premises. FIFA also did its homework before deciding upon this, and they knew that the event will get the maximum crowd and press coverage in Kolkata. Also, the State government’s enthusiasm to host the event and the whole-hearted manner in which it cooperated played a key role in the ultimate decision.”

The official slogan for this year’s tournament is “Football Takes Over”. “This is the first time that India is hosting a FIFA tournament. It will be also the first time an Indian team will play in a FIFA competition. In recognition of the increasing excitement about the beautiful game in India, ‘Football Takes Over’ was the first and most fitting choice as the official slogan for the tournament,” said LOC Tournament Director Javier Ceppi.

For India, the honour of hosting a World Cup event came hand in hand with the pressure to overcome some major challenges in a relatively short span of time. Said Subrata Dutta: “Our main challenge was that we simply did not have the right kind of infrastructure to host such an event. However, with the help of the Central and State governments we could overcome that in just about three years. As a result, we can now proudly say that we have the infrastructure to develop modern football and host tournaments of any international standard.”

Both the Centre and the State governments have launched a major publicity drive to promote the Under-17 World Cup. The Centre has launched a Mission XI Million programme with the aim of reaching out to at least 11 million schoolchildren and create awareness about the event. “Activities such as workshops and festivals are being organised across all States to promote and popularise the programme. The key idea of Mission XI Million is that every child should have the opportunity to play the world’s most popular sport,” said Vijay Goel, Union Minister for Youth Affairs and Sports.

The Trinamool Congress government in West Bengal has also set up several committees and task forces and has decided to transform Kolkata into “Football City” months before the tournament begins in order to attract tourists. “The State government will take this opportunity to place Kolkata on the world map as a major tourist destination. In fact, the cooperation and help we received from the State government was so unexpected and so much that we thought maybe it is under the misconception that the senior World Cup is going to be played here,” an AIFF official joked.

Some of the legends of the game are expected to grace the venues for promotional programmes. Although the FIFA and the AIFF were tight-lipped about it, the names of Diego Maradona and Ronaldo are doing the rounds.

Indian football

The history of Indian football is inextricably linked with the country’s independence struggle. In 1911, when the barefooted Indian players of the Mohun Bagan Athletic Club beat the British East York Regiment team 2-1 in the final of the Indian Football Association Challenge Shield at the CFC ground, it was seen as a mighty blow to the colonial rulers. This gave an impetus to the Indian nationalist movement. But it was not until the 1950s-60s that Indian football came into its own. It was during this period that India became a powerhouse in football in Asia. It won the gold medal in the Asian Games of 1951 and 1962, secured the fourth position in the 1956 Summer Olympics, and was runner-up in the Merdeka Cup of 1959 and in the 1964 AFC Asian Cup. India’s last great performance at the international level was in the 1970 Asian Games, when it won the bronze medal beating Japan.

Since then, India’s performance in international tournaments has been nothing to write home about, even though the game remained hugely popular at the club level in different pockets of the country.

Football legend Shyam Thapa, who is also chairman of the AIFF Technical Committee, believes this is an ideal opportunity to take football forward as a sport in India. “Seventeen is the age after which the next step is professional football. This tournament will let us know what the international standard is and where we stand. At one time in Asia we were the best. But then we could not improve and the popularity of the sport also fell. Our concern should not just be on performance; this World Cup was given to India to popularise the sport in the country. It is a fresh opportunity for us and we must take full advantage of it. Not just the AIFF, but the Government of India, the Sports Ministry, the whole country should take interest in this. This can be the beginning,” the iconic playmaker of the past, famed for his devastating bicycle kicks, told Frontline.

According to Thapa, the only way to take the game forward is to focus on youth development programmes. “I always ask why big clubs such as East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, Mohammedan Sporting and others do not keep aside a portion of their hefty budgets for training youngsters and preparing them to take over the mantle from the previous generation. This way they can build up the second line of their main teams and make provisions for the future of the sport,” he said.

He pointed out that Asian countries like Japan have made their presence felt in international football thanks to conscious efforts and long-term plans at the government level to achieve a level of excellence. “In India we never did that. For all the passion of the supporters of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, what is it doing for football as a whole? There has to be initiative at the government level to rekindle interest in the game. The Under-17 World Cup is a godsend. Now it is up to us to take it forward from here,” said Thapa.

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