CHENNAI: It was on a December night in 2013 that Sepp Blatter, long before he had wads of cash thrown at his face, stood with a froggy smile and announced that India was going to host the U-17 World Cup in 2017. Everyone’s immediate reaction was a mix of two contrasting emotions — euphoria, for Indian football was finally being handed a rope to drag itself out of the quicksand in which it had been stuck for decades and concern, for administrators in the country hardly had the best track record of hosting international events.
The 2010 Commonwealth Games and the embarrassment that followed was fresh on everyone’s mind. What was the All India Football Federation, which, then, ran the country’s top tier league on bald grounds devoid of floodlights and proper locker rooms, going to do, with less than four years left?
2017 is finally upon us and the scenario no longer looks that bleak. There may only be months left for the U-17 World Cup but India is nearly ready, if the organising committee is to be believed. Proof of that is the recent Asian U-16 Championships which Goa hosted with only a few minor glitches. “To be honest, we were paranoid because it was India,” Joy Bhattacharjya, the tournament’s project director says. “We saw what happened with South Africa in 2010 and Brazil four years later when construction was going on two days before the tournament. If that were to happen, we would not have been able to focus on what a youth tournament does — get the entire country excited.
“We are in good shape at most places. The big worry was Delhi because work had not started. But the good thing is that SAI DG and newly-appointed sports secretary Injeti Srinivas is working with us there. Guwahati was a bit of a concern, but the chief minister there is making sure everything goes fine. We gave them clear deadlines very early. So the major civic work has been completed. Only small fixes are going on.”
Indeed it is testament to the good work that Bhattarcharjya and tournament director Javier Ceppi have done that most stadiums are ready with a full ten months left before the tournament. A final seal of approval will be stamped when a FIFA delegation comes calling in March.
“FIFA will be coming for an inspection in March again,” says Bhattacharjya. “From then on, we will take over the fields. Others can still play there, but we will be looking at maintaining on a weekly basis.”
Building a team
While getting infrastructure ready was the part everyone looked at with worry, building a team for the Cup was what everyone looked at with hope. The thought was simple enough. Groom a group of boys, who at 16 and 17, are good enough to give their contemporaries from Brazil and Argentina a good match and they just might make India relevant on the world stage in a few years.
The doubt though was whether the AIFF, with such a poor track record in player development, would be able to deliver. Three years down the line, it is hard to fault their efforts.
German coach Nicolai Adam, who was coaching the Azerbaijan U-19 team with great results, was brought in. Adam, along with former India international Abhishek Yadav quickly set about scouring the length and breadth of the country for talent.
“When I came to India, I knew it was going to be nothing like Germany,” Adam told Express in an interview back in September. “The size alone is both an advantage and disadvantage. In Germany, you pick from specific age-group league. In India, that did not exist. Now there is a U-15 league, but it is a bit too late for my purpose. So we had to go out, organise trials, watch a lot of football and pick the best talents.”
Once a squad was assembled, exposure tours began, with the team arguably spending more time abroad than at home in the last 24 months. The team has already toured Europe and Asia, and are now in Brazil, playing the likes of Uruguay. While the results have not been revolutionary, the improvement the kids have made is more than noticeable. In the recent Asian U-16 Championships, the team held Saudi Arabia to a 3-3 draw and narrowly lost 2-3 to UAE. It is the sort of game that the senior team would have lost by a handsome margin.
While the tournament is only months away, Adam and Co are still on the lookout for players. The ongoing U-16 I-League is a hunting ground. “Some of the best players from the ongoing U-16 I-League will be selected and sent to train with the India U-19s. This is because the U-17 squad is currently abroad,” said I-League CEO Sunando Dhar.
“Once they are back, Nicolai will have a look and see if they are good enough for the squad.”
Only time will tell if the U-17 World Cup goes on to become a game-changer for Indian football. But for now, the signs are looking good.