For a tournament which had ‘Football Takes Over’ as its slogan, the success of its efforts in promoting the game remained ambiguous.
Nobody forgets their first time. India most certainly will not. By the time the under-17 World Cup drew to a close, a record attendance for the tournament had been confirmed. It broke the mark of 1.23 million set 32 years ago in China during the inaugural edition.
The World Cup’s slogan in India, Football Takes Over, was widely claimed to have been true. Indeed, the absolute numbers backed up the interest in the tournament. They supposedly won the argument. Football had been given a new lease of life in India.
Over the past three weeks, as one surveyed the general sentiment around the World Cup, the perception was that it was ‘a good thing’ that the tournament had come to India. Indeed, when judged in terms of the quality of football on offer, it was an experience which had remained out of the clutches of most Indians. Nor did it turn out to be a logistical nightmare; that probably was an exaggerated fear anyway since FIFA generally ensures that no crisis afflicts its tournaments. But as the dust settles over a World Cup which saw a record number of goals, there was much worth reflecting upon. The stories worth recounting were written off the field.
As one made their way to the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi on October 6, it became apparent that the area was in lockdown mode. The invitation to Prime Minister Narendra Modi struck at the elaborate preparations made for India’s opening match. The result was a logistical morass. It was almost as if the organisers had not anticipated the associated acts that would accompany the prime minister.
With intensive security the order of the day, the World Cup’s beginning is remembered as much for the football as for the chaos that reigned. With 27,000 school children invited for the matches in Delhi, there was an acute shortage of drinking water and many were left to access it from bathroom taps.
VIP movement restricted access to certain areas and it seemed the whole exercise was an imitation of social events in the Soviet Union. The match had its moments but India was thoroughly outplayed by the US. The defeat, albeit expected, rankled. But nothing hurt more than the general apathy with which the fans were treated. For a tournament which sought to bring a novel experience to Indian spectators, it was not the best start. Nothing had changed, it seemed.
Indian football team
Things got better for the fans but not the home team. Although there was a slight uptick in performance after the opening match, the team still managed to finish only 24th out of 24 nations. In the lead up to the tournament, reliable observers had claimed that no side was weaker than India in the World Cup. However, as the country’s maiden appearance got closer, those with vested interests sought to whip up the optimism.
The results did not temper the enthusiasm. Coach Luis Norton de Matos thought India should have lost 1-2 to the US even though a worse scoreline than 0-3 would not have been harsh on the host. A spirited display against Colombia should have earned a point for the home side but a 0-4 thrashing by Ghana in the final group match was a grim reminder of what separated India from the rest.
While all that the host got wrong on the football field was explained away by inexperience, there was little recognition of the fact that other debutants had performed better. Niger made it to the knockout stages while New Caledonia earned a prized point against Japan.
Indian football’s failings have been understood through specious reasoning like poor infrastructure and inadequate nutrition for long, but countries which fare worse than India on those indicators continue to perform much better. It was worth recalling that, after defeating the host 4-0, Ghana’s coach Paa Kwesi Fabin rated India’s football infrastructure to be “far better” than the resources in his own country. Ghana, if anybody needs reminding, is an African heavyweight which won the under-20 World Cup in 2009.
Indian football’s insularity was summed up in the pronouncements by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) president, Praful Patel. While there was much to call out, a selection of his comments before and during the World Cup demonstrated his penchant for gaffes and a blinkered vision.
At the World Cup draw in July, Patel claimed that India had qualified for the 1958 World Cup but could not participate because the footballers played barefoot. Incorrect on both counts – India qualified for the 1950 World Cup but did not go due to a lack of funds and interest; the barefoot myth has been refuted by historians. Patel only needed to ask Novy Kapadia, whose latest book Barefoot to Boots he openly recommends to the media these days.
There is more. A day before the World Cup final in Kolkata, Patel said that there was no competitive football in Chennai before 2015. A claim so ignorant that it overshadowed all of his other unreliable remarks. By then, however, Patel’s difficulties with the history of Indian football were well known.
Patel also had no qualms in claiming that, in addition to the six Indian venues chosen for this World Cup, another six could have been added to the list. It is a claim he loves to repeat. Unfortunately, at the press conference in Kolkata, the tournament director Javier Ceppi had clearly said that nine venues had been under consideration to host the under-17 World Cup matches. Yet, Patel repeated the claim in the company of FIFA president Gianni Infantino the following day. In course of the same spiel, he also claimed that India would have struggled to present a single FIFA-accredited venue five years ago. In the world of Patel, numbers change thick and fast.
Poor infrastructure is an argument the AIFF president loves to emphasise. Indian football has been held back all these years by the absence of proper pitches and stadiums, he contends. Now that the infrastructure is certainly better, Patel maintained that India performed “exceedingly well” at the World Cup. A last-place finish met the lofty standards set by the AIFF president.
Through his statements and activities, Patel ensured the spotlight remained on him. Having rolled out the red carpet for the FIFA Council, the AIFF president earned the much-sought stamp of approval from the governing body’s disreputable personage. Time after time, FIFA officials were quick to point out that Indian football was headed in the right direction. Of course, Infantino sang from the same hymn sheet.
Patel responded with a compliment of his own. We were told that Infantino is such a clever man that he completes the AIFF president’s sentences as soon as words leave the latter’s mouth. How very adorable. With an endorsement for short-termism secured, the AIFF is set to spend more on exposure tours instead of investing in a grassroots system. The expenditure on the under-17 World Cup squad was in the region of Rs 15 crore. Somehow, the belief among Indian football administrators seems to be that spending on a bunch of players is better than ensuring a steady stream of talent. FIFA, of course, is complicit. As long as the global governing body’s financial gains are secured, the AIFF president’s personal ambitions and haphazard planning will have its support.
As FIFA officials and Patel loved to emphasise last weekend, India matters because it is like a continent. Now if only there was a qualification spot for the FIFA World Cup which came with it…
Politicians as footballers
The promotion for the tournament, albeit low key, was widely lapped up by politicians. Public spending was in the region of Rs 120 crore for the venues’ upgrade and the contentious legacy programme, Mission XI Million. Modi’s face beamed from posters as he promoted ‘Yuva Football ka Dum’ (The power of youth football). Political iconography went beyond him as one could also spot the faces of the respective chief ministers on billboards across India.
While state support was obvious, tournament promoters fished a small pool for spreading the World Cup’s reach. The pale history of Indian football had left very few recognisable names to encourage interest in the competition. No wonder then that the Organising Committee went down the obvious path of including Sachin Tendulkar in the official song’s video. Indian football stars alone would not suffice.
For a tournament which had ‘Football Takes Over’ as its slogan, its efforts in promoting the game remained ambiguous. While the legacy programme could only turn into an outreach project – with the number of children it reached disputed – a strange schedule did not help matters. We had a rare tournament which could not accommodate the host’s matches on a weekend.
However, despite the farcical Mali-Ghana quarterfinal which saw the teams play on a ruined pitch in torrential rain, the quality of football was a massive improvement on what the Indian fans are accustomed to watching at home. Whether the tournament will lead to an upsurge in the popularity of football is a moot point. A reasonable conclusion would be that one tournament cannot transform the outlook towards a certain sport, particularly when football is in the hands of the bungling AIFF.
Promises have (once again) been made to invest in the upgrade of Indian football ecosystem. History would advise us to be sceptical. Football may become the sport of choice for many Indians, but it is early days still.
Priyansh is a sports journalist and writer.