Three years hence, India will host its biggest ever football extravaganza - the FIFA under-17 world cup. A year from now, the six venues for the prestigious event will be announced.
Will historic Kochi be a stopover during the journey that is expected to pitchfork the nation into the world football psyche? As a first step, a delegation led by FIFA Deputy Director of Competitions Inaki Alvarez inspected the Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium and the grounds proposed to be developed for training on Tuesday.
The Nehru Stadium looked impressive enough. But the playing surface also had cricket wickets sticking out in the centre. Alvarez, accompanied by FIFA Competitions Manager Vijay Parthasarathy and South and Central Asia Development Officer Shaji Prabhakaran, spent more than an hour looking up the sprawling venue. He also took a few snaps of the stands and the ground that will form a part of his report.
The main venue, the Nehru Stadium, has the basic infrastructure to be raised to world class standards. That the venue has a natural turf assumes significance given that three important contenders - Salt Lake Stadium, Kolkata, Mumbai’s Cooperage Stadium and Bangalore Football Stadium - have artificial turfs. With FIFA looking for a balance of natural and artificial turfs, Kochi gets an edge along with the other football powerhouse, Goa, which boasts the imposing Nehru Stadium in Fatorda. Kerala being one of India’s traditional football hotbeds, and coupled with its political clout, it would be tough to ignore the claims of Kochi.
“Clearly, the place has a history and tradition in football... we respect that. We also saw the commitment and the passion for the game. What we have seen so far has been very encouraging,” Alvarez said.
The Achilles’ Heel
The past editions of major national tournaments, along with international tournaments have faced a singular problem in Kochi - the lack of quality training venues.
The FIFA team also visited grounds being considered as possible training venues.
The current condition of the St Albert’s College ground, Maharaja’s College Stadium, Ambedkar Stadium, SH College Ground, Thevara and the Fisheries College Ground, Panangad - unkempt as they are don’t exactly strike a chord with international expectations.
“With the world cup the big thing is the infrastructure. That’s why we are here so early. There is plenty of time to put the facilities in place,” Alvarez, a Spaniard, pointed out.
Kerala Football Association president, KM I Mather, is confident that the required improvements can be made to get the grounds in shape. The Central and state governments have given guarantees that the infrastructure will be raised to FIFA stipulations. “Organisation, support from the government and private sector, hotels, travel, security, IT... need to be addressed We met the Chief Minister.
He has given a commitment to do whatever is necessary,” Alvarez said. All said and done, there will be suggestions from FIFA that the government, football association and every football lover in the state will have to take to heart to bring the
biggest platform for the world’s rising talent to Kochi.
Alvarez’s words “There will be discussions and we will make more visits, not too many though” should be enough warning for the powers that be to get cracking.