MUMBAI: The smell of freshly-tarred roads surrounds Navi Mumbai’s DY Patil Stadium. Right from the Vashi flyover that connects Mumbai to Navi Mumbai, FIFA hoardings, endorsed by the municipal corporation, scream out.
A carpet of newly-laid grass covers the field, lightly veiling the venue’s tryst with cricket.
“The ground is slightly hard in the middle,” says New Zealand under-17 coach, Danny Hay.
“Because it used to be a cricket pitch.”
Perhaps because Hay comes from a cricket-playing nation, the connection is instant. The circular ground, which hosted the first-ever Indian Premier League final in 2008, has now been demarcated into a rectangular football field.
As India get ready to host the FIFA U-17 World Cup, the first World Cup at any age-group to be played in the country, Navi Mumbai, along with New Delhi, will do the opening day honours on Friday. New Zealand will take on Turkey in the opening match of the day at the stadium, while Mali play Paraguay in the second.
More than the field’s firm under-ground, Mumbai’s heat and humidity pose some concern for the Kiwis. The mercury is forecast to hit the thirties again on Friday as they play in early evening. “This is why we arrived early in Mumbai,” said Hay. “To get used to the heat.”
That the Kiwis were struggling with the conditions was evident during their practice match against Brazil last week. One of the biggest challenges for the team from the Oceania zone is that they are not accustomed to different climatic conditions and do not quite have the resources to set up training camps in faraway lands.
Their opponents Turkey had stopped over for a few weeks of training in Qatar before arriving in India.
“We had made a training plan specifically to help the players get used to the heat and humidity,” said Mehmet Hacioglu, the coach of Turkey.
He continued, “Not only New Zealand, every team in our group (B) are bigger and stronger than us. They have a big physical advantage. But we are a technical team and have the skills, I think, to make up for that. To prepare for this World Cup, we started our youth leagues earlier than usual.”
Turkey qualified from Europe, one of the toughest confederations, even as pedigree teams like Italy and the Netherlands could not make the cut. And just like they did in the Under-17 European Championships earlier this year by reaching the semi-finals, they are hoping to change the power equations at this World Cup.
Though not the toughest, Group B also includes Mali Paraguay, who were third in their continental championships. In keeping with the stature of the event, all four teams arrived at the field of play on Thursday in FIFA labelled buses with police escorts.