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Football Set to Take Over an India on the Brink of Demonstrating Its Global Pretensions

The fact that this has been the grandest build-up to an under-17 FIFA event should make us reflect on what this tournament has come to mean for India.

Praful Patel. Credit: PTI

Praful Patel. Credit: PTI

Priyansh is a freelance sports writer.

This is the grandest lead-up to a FIFA under-17 World Cup. According to the Local Organising Committee, the tournament has already generated unprecedented media coverage – 23-times the combined volume seen by the previous three editions. And the World Cup has not even begun.

The excitement is not misplaced. Never before has India played in a World Cup. The team’s pedigree is doubtful but it cannot overshadow the significance of what beckons the country over the coming days. The hosting of the FIFA U-17 World Cup is a redoubtable high point in India’s sporting history.

The national side’s performance on the pitch will be expected to energise the mood in the country but it may be an undue imposition on a team still coming to terms with the level at which it will have to compete. As the head coach Luis Norton de Matos has pointed out repeatedly, most of India’s opponents have a ‘ten-year advantage’. Boys in elite football nations begin playing competitive football at the age of seven. Their Indian counterparts cannot boast of such luxuries.

But it is more important to speak of the World Cup’s legacy. Particularly when one recognises that the tournament organisers have constantly tried to position this as a legacy project. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) President Praful Patel has already sought to drive the conversation towards the future.

Work for a ‘National Centre for Excellence’ is expected to start next year, with the project expected to cost in the excess of Rs 100 crore. Further, to ensure the gains are not lost, the current under-17 side is slated to train together for the coming years with participation in the I-League confirmed now. The idea is to ensure that India will be ready to play the under-20 World Cup in two years’ time, if the country’s bid to host another global competition is successful.

Patel’s rising ambitions for Indian football have been accompanied by his steady rise in football bureaucracy. The Member of Parliament is a senior vice-president at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and also a member on the FIFA Finance Committee. His political clout has also ensured that the Union government has been a reliable ally throughout the tournament’s preparation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Mann Ki Baat’ address set the tone for the Centre’s interest in ensuring that the tournament turns out to be a spectacle. It was followed by the appointment of Bharatiya Janata Party MP Babul Supriyo as the vice-president of the Local Organising Committee. A total spend of about Rs 120 crore has been a constant reminder as well, with an estimated Rs 25 crore set aside for the outreach programme, ‘Mission XI Million’.

No opening ceremony

It is up for debate if all the public spending has been worth it. But the enduring image in the days leading up to the World Cup is a billboard for the ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ in the upper tier of the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium stands. Yet when he spoke to media persons on October 5, Patel underplayed the role of the Central government. “The government has not spent any money on the tournament. It has spent on the stadiums which it owns. The government’s involvement was only limited to the upgrade of infrastructure,” he said.

Patel’s contention does not stand up to scrutiny. The Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi has been swarmed by cops in anticipation of Modi’s visit on October 6 – after he accepted the AIFF’s invitation. It could have been worse. But thankfully, the Union government did not get its wish to host an opening ceremony fulfilled. “An opening ceremony is not a usual aspect of the conduct of a FIFA U-17 World Cup, because in these tournaments football is the real star. There was a query by Government of India at some point of time to do one…” tournament director Javier Ceppi had confirmed.

But Modi will be there to greet the sides ahead of the kickoff. According to sources, 27,000 tickets have been secured by the government to ensure a packed house. With a strong VVIP presence expected as well, a show of strength seems to be in the offing.

As Patel positions himself for a greater role in football administration, it is imperative that the World Cup break new ground. In this endeavour, he found a reliable presence in the Local Organising Committee. The initial response to the preparation has been largely positive, with Ceppi revealing that visiting teams are surprised with the quality of facilities.

But on the opening day of the World Cup, where does India stand? On the brink of demonstrating its global pretensions. The fact that this has been the grandest build-up to an under-17 FIFA event should make us reflect on what this tournament has come to mean for India. Historically, this has been a competition that FIFA ‘awards’ to emerging markets, places where it would like to expand its presence.

AIFF + FIFA = ?

India has more or less satisfied those expectations. For a country where sporting events of a truly world class standing are rare, it is no surprise that it has sought to make the most of its opportunity. As it welcomes football royalty, India’s intentions are crystal clear.

Days before the final, the FIFA executive council will hold a session in Kolkata with the who’s who of the organisation expected to arrive on October 26, including President Gianni Infantino. Not to forget, for the World Cup’s opening day, India will play host to FIFA’s first female secretary general, Fatma Samoura, and AFC president and FIFA council member Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa.

It is useful to recall that Sheikh Salman, a Bahraini royalty member with a dubious human rights record, has been unable to shake off the taint of corruption. But this is the gold standard for impropriety set by FIFA. As India prepares to roll out the red carpet for the global body, it is going to have more friends who do not always turn out to be what they seem.

But such concerns will be overshadowed by the clamour for football. The tournament organisers have sought to reposition football within the Indian sporting scene. ‘Football Takes Over’ is its chosen clarion call. In some sense, they have been able to bring the sport in the centre of public attention. Albeit for a few days.

So, what should we expect over the coming three weeks? Plenty of quality football as we sample some future stars. As for India, its football establishment can legitimately claim to have won over FIFA if all goes well. In case the under-20 World Cup is the next guest in two years’ time, nobody will be left in doubt over India’s place in the football world. From emerging to emergent.

But once the World Cup is over, we will need to reflect on the relationship that the AIFF and FIFA will share. Not to forget the role of the Indian state. Just ask Brazil how it all went wrong. For the Union government, though, that may not be a concern. As long as it’s good public relations, the political support will be there. Not to disregard the potential for India’s standing to grow globally if it can boast of a competitive team.

It is still early days for us to reckon with that possibility. But the first steps towards that goal will be taken on Friday evening in New Delhi.