NEW DELHI: Finally, it’s here -the biggest-ever international football tournament on Indian soil. The FIFA Under-17 World Cup, which begins today, is not only a massive boost for the sport in India but a showcase for the country’s ambitions to be a magnet for the biggest, best sporting events.
India will take on the United States and Ghana will play Colombia on Friday evening at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium here, while in Mumbai, at the DY Patil Stadium, New Zealand will play Turkey and Paraguay will play Mali.
That the machinery for a FIFA World Cup would be put in place so smoothly, and so soon, seemed a pipe dream even when India won the bid to host the event on a cold December evening of 2013.
There were apprehensions in various quarters – would the country be ready on time? Would preparations be free of corruption, political interference and last-minute glitches? Some even smirked at that time, “Do we need this World Cup? After all we are No.154 in the world.”
Such fears were not without reason – remember the 2010 Commonwealth Games, with its Games Village chaos and allegations of rampant corruption?
However, with constant support from successive governments and an expenditure of no less than Rs 90 crore, the playing arenas got refurbished in time, matching FIFA’s world standards.
Adding to the feel-good factor is the fact that India are currently ranked 107 in the world, a jump of 47 rungs between 2013 and now. There are definitely teams of better pedigree but what matters for India is not so much the result, but the fact that the country’s budding footballers are getting to strut their stuff on this biggest stage.
Rubbing shoulders with some of the world’s best in their age group and getting a sneak peek into the machinery behind some of the world’s strongest footballing nations is an additional bonus. The event will be played across six venues, with 24 teams comprising more than 550 players contesting in the 17th edition of this tournament. For these boys, there will be no bigger platform to win hearts and carve a niche in the most competitive, and most followed, sport on the planet.
India will play in a World Cup for the very first time, having qualified as the host nation. They did qualify for the FIFA World Cup proper in 1950, but to travel to Brazil, just three years after independence, seemed too much of an ask for the federation at that time. Instead, the Indian football team played in the 1948, 1952 and 1956 Olympic Games.
Showing a lot of courage in claiming the event, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) put its best foot forward, working in tandem with FIFA and carrying out a sustained effort to get things in order. President Praful Patel, often criticized for India’s malnourished football eco-system, can draw a lot of credit for the organization of an event of this magnitude. For three years, Patel and his team have worked tirelessly .
“For a country like India, the priority remains to make a mark on the World stage. The U-17 World Cup hosting rights could not have come at a better time. The very fact that our boys will be getting a chance to rub shoulders with the best of the world is amazing,” Patel, who took charge of the AIFF eight years ago, said.
“The overall infrastructure of the country has been improved to be at par with international standards, which will benefit Indian football immensely,” Patel added.
When the lots were drawn in Mumbai last August, with United States Football Association‘s president Sunil Gulati in attendance, India discovered they were grouped with Colombia, US and Ghana – teams with a much higher pedigree and a history of regularly playing in the senior World Cups.
Defending champions Nigeria will be absent since they failed to qualify .But the rest of the top guns are here.
The Indians are ready too. There are no budding Neymars, Iniestas, Mueller, Messis and Ronaldo in their ranks, but they are eager to take first baby steps towards a brighter future.
It’s going to be a fascinating few weeks of footballing excellence but more importantly, the World Cup will leave behind a lasting legacy, and improved infrastructure for Indian football to thrive in.