Will FIFA U17 World Cup change the face of Indian Football?


India

Here we are, less than 24 hours to go for India’s first ever FIFA World Cup game, never mind it being a youth category. Has the football revolution begun? Have the people woken up from their slumber? Has Indian media started to realize the importance of covering football games? Here are my thoughts on it.

Rise of the Sleeping Giant

Since the appointment in 2012 of Mr. Praful Patel as president of All India Football Federation (AIFF), the game has seen significant changes in structure. Through his leadership and vision, he has managed to professionalize the beautiful game in India. AIFF signed deals with German Football Association (DFB), French Football Association (FFF) and Japan Football Association (JFA) in 2015. A women’s league was also launched in 2017. Multiple initiatives like these like the BRICS U-17 Tournament in Goa last year and others lead to AIFF winning the award of AFC Developing Member Association of the Year (2016) at the Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) Annual Awards.

Mission XI Million

Fuelled by him and Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi’s vision of making football the sport of choice in the country, Mission XI Million (MXM) was launched early 2017 with an aim of engaging 11 million boys and girls in the country with football. It does not mean, making them play professionally. It just means introducing the kids to the game, in all 29 states & more than 16,000 schools to reach the target of 11 million children.

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6000 kids engaged in a weekend in Ahmedabad, Gujrat. Source.

The plan was to reach the target before the World Cup begins, it has reached 10.6m children, 19,000 schools, and all 29 states [1]. It has been immensely successful, and was rightly labelled as the ‘star of the U-17 World Cup’ by Javier Ceppi, Tournament Director. His words [2],

“It’s not a football training programme. It was not supposed to be one. What we are trying to tell people is extremely simple: That you can actually play football anywhere, in any capacity – two vs. two, five vs. five – that you do not need an 11 vs. 11 to play football; that you can play football on a lawn, mud ground or whatever space that you have. That is a real eye-opener when we go to schools and speak to the school administration systems. It’s like gully cricket and now it’s gully football.”

That is how it starts for most professional football players, especially in the hotbed of young players, South America. Suarez, Sanchez, and even Messi came from a background like this. It starts in the streets where children get familiarized with the game. That is where the change will come from.

“The first (excuse) that everybody came back to us with was, ‘We don’t have infrastructure’. We asked them ‘What do you consider as infrastructure?’ They said ‘A large football field with regulation size goals’, but when they started looking at the reality, that they don’t actually need that infrastructure, they can use whatever small space they have – that’s when the real change started to happen.”

In my personal experience, I started playing about 11 years ago and everybody in the ground used to play Cricket. It was me and another friend, passing, making virtual 1-2’s and practicing shooting. In a few months, everybody was playing football on the field. Even in school, I was the first one to convince everyone to get their white school uniforms dirty in the mud and dust and start playing football. We didn’t have goalposts, or even a football at times (I had to bring my own) or a big ground but we did play. It only takes a small push, because once they have taken up football, no one wants to look back. The game is naturally addictive (in a positive way).

Future

The success of Indian Super League (ISL), the fourth largest attended football league in the world [3], shifted the eyes of the spectators towards football. Star Sports, IMG Reliance and other big sponsors drove the promotion of the campaign surrounding it and the whole country watched the beautiful game. ISL has faced a lot of criticism for being a Major League Soccer (MLS) type model and the clubs for not doing anything in Youth Development which is a requirement by AFC for their club licensing. Since mid-2017, all ISL clubs are required to have at least 3 youth age groups in their system to be able to qualify for the AFC Champions Cup.

However, how I see it is, playing with Marquee players like Diego Forlan, Luis Garcia, and Roberto Carlos among other young international players, gives Indian players an experience they would otherwise not get. They would also have to improve their game to match up to their level, reduce the skill gap between them and international players. The demand for better football players comes from the top, and the development (supply) then starts at the bottom, at the grassroots. Mission XI Million has done brilliantly in introducing the kids to the game. And clubs like Bengaluru FC, Jamshedpur (Tata Football Academy), AIFF Elite Academy, LFC International Academy in Pune, among others are developing youth, so the pathway for a footballer to progress from school to club to elite status, is getting clearer and clearer.

AIFF also announced a world-class national centre of excellence for the Indian National Team, youth teams and women’s teams. They did not disclose the location but it is in advanced stages, and aim is to get it ready by end of 2019 [4].

There is a lot of work to be done, but the future of Indian Football looks optimistic to say the least.

U-17 World Cup

For now, let’s turn our attention to the first ever FIFA event in India. The current stakeholders and promoters of the game are doing all they can to promote the event.

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The likes of Ronaldo, Messi, and world class FIFA World Cup players will soon play in India in an event only if this is a success, so get yourselves off your couches and go fill the stadiums [5]. The first match-day has already sold out in multiple cities, including the capital. Now it’s all up to our boys in blue!

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“It is very simple. It’s a one-liner. This is the single best live football (event) that they would have seen in India by far and beyond. There is no football that has been played live in India that compares even remotely to the level of football they will see.” – Javier Ceppi for Goal.com.

Hope.

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