NEW DELHI: India are already the winners irrespective of how the results pan out on the field, says FIFA's deputy secretary and Croatian football legend Zvonimir Boban, as the country gears up to host the U-17 World Cup.
India's first-ever FIFA tournament kicks off tomorrow with matches in Delhi and Mumbai. The host nation will take on the USA at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium here.
"Regardless of the actual results on the pitch, India are already winners as they have been able to prepare this event.
Football has taken over, and the Indian players are benefitting from a unique experience," Boban, who captained Croatia to a remarkable third-place finish at the 1998 FIFA World Cup, told PTI in an interview.
While India could have drawn much bigger teams, USA, Ghana and Colombia are formidable opponents at this age group.
Boban led a team that included Golden Boot winner Davor Suker.
When asked how crucial the host nation's performance could be in the tournament, the 48-year-old added, "Today, the FIFA U-17 World Cup is difficult for all teams as the level of football has steadily increased in recent years.
Boban, who played as an attacking midfielder, said football infrastructure will benefit immensely from the tournament.
"Football infrastructure is indeed one of the aspects that will benefit from the FIFA U-17 World Cup. On one hand, the improved infrastructure will facilitate the development of football in India at all levels, and on the other it will represent a great opportunity for club administrators, scouts and other football stakeholders to visit India, feel and experience the passion of the Indian football community and re-think their future strategies concerning India's involvement.
"The AIFF, LOC and government efforts have been great and the current infrastructure will surely benefit the football structure in the years to come."
A winner of four Serie A titles besides a UEFA Champions League triumph with AC Milan, Boban felt the tournament could help in developing a strong senior national team.
"The FIFA U-17 World Cup will undoubtedly be a major event for all players of the Indian national team as no other generation of Indian players has ever had such an experience.
"However, it's also important to keep in mind that these players are just starting their careers and still have a long way to go in order to fully exploit their potential.
"Nevertheless, passionate players will devote more efforts in becoming even better players, so in the long run we will definitely see some improvements in the senior team."
Though Indian football had a strong presence in the 1950s and 60s, they slipped in the rankings over the years.
Following the U-17 World Cup, things could improve.
"I have no doubt that football will become an integral part of the culture of the Indian people. Football is closing the gap in the world and countries like India are demonstrating how important football tournaments can be for the overall development of our sport.
"By improving football infrastructure and bringing football to different segments of Indian society, this World Cup is already making a significant contribution to Indian football.
"Of course, this process needs to continue after the World Cup, and FIFA will be most happy to support it. Together with Mission XI Million, football will change the sporting culture in India for sure."
Boban said the six venues are at par with international standards.
"The training grounds for this FIFA U-17 World Cup are great and we expect happy teams in all six venues. While the U-17 World Cup represents an important milestone for Indian football, more work will be needed to get to the next stage of football development."
Having overcome many obstacles, FIFA is now hoping the tournament turns out to be the best-ever U-17 World Cup.
"We have faced different challenges, but nothing that could not be managed thanks to the assistance of the Indian government, the AIFF and the Local Organising Committee.
That's precisely why it's been so encouraging to see all the hard work being done to make this the best FIFA U-17 World Cup ever."
On the tournament, he further said, "This World Cup can serve as a catalyst to further develop competitive football as well, which is fundamental when it comes to enhancing the popularity of football in a specific country and creating role models to inspire the younger generations."