And here they come the men in blue, making their way on to the field with the pride and exuberance of a 125 billion people rested upon their shoulders. This marks an historic day for the Indian sporting fraternity as they make their debut walk into the cathedral of the FIFA World Cup….” These are the words we all as Indians do want to hear, and witness that golden moment sitting together with our families and friends, and for a split second let it sink in. It is a dream that we all want to live; it is a dream that we all will live; it is a dream that was worth waiting for. Yes, India is only a day away from hosting one of the biggest spectacles ever, U-17 FIFA World Cup 2017. And it comes at a time when the Indian men’s football team is in its best shape over the last 25 years. It comes at a time when our U-17 team came back from 0-2 behind to clinch a 2-2 draw against Sporting Lisbon, one of the top tier clubs in world football. With the entire buzz around the corner one can’t help but ask, “Finally is this the moment for the Indian football.”
On 5TH December 2013, when FIFA announced India as the official hosts of the U-17 FIFA World Cup [FWC] 2017, it was nothing less than a bolt from the blue. Time and again it has been said that India might not be at the top of world football but football fans in India are surely the most ardent ones. There is no other reason on earth why more than half of India’s youth would wake till 3:30 in the night just to watch an el clasico or a Manchester derby. There is no other reason why the Indians would go on to the extent of hitting the hell out of each other, possibly to reach an explanation as to who is better, Messi or Ronaldo. There is no other reason why Arsenal would have more supporters in India than in the Emirates stadium. India for a long time has been at the centre stage of the global market, and the case with football is no different.
We haven’t been at the centre stage of world football but as they say hope is the key. The mouth watering feeling of India for the first time hosting and featuring in a FIFA event isn’t one to be kept aside. To be optimistic we might as well say that in the total 16 editions of U-17 FWC’s, Nigeria have been 5 times winners and 3 times runner-ups, Ghana and Mexico have been 2 times winners, Saudi Arabia and Switzerland have won it once; Mali was runner-ups last time. The fact that these names are being highlighted is because these nations haven’t had a huge impact on international football before and even don’t right now. It is through this tournament that they have made it to the centre stage and are now seen as genuine party spoilers by the best teams across the world. One can always look back at underdog stories such as Ghana in 2010 World Cup or North Korea in 2002, and smile in peace.
The U-17 FWC has a huge chance of giving the Indians a major Deja-vu. Flipping back the pages of history, we’ll find a different India altogether. Back in the 1950’s Indian football team used to be known as the top giants in Asia. Yes the Asian champions even qualified for the 1950 FIFA World Cup but as we all know 3 years post independence, priorities had a very different definition.
One thing that needs to be understood quite clearly is the meaning of U-17 football and how it is different from the one that we are used to watching. This is the football where Formations, team-tactics, tiki taka, offside traps don’t work too often. In fact teams that have tried to do so have failed more than 95% as we look back at the stats. You can’t expect 15-16 year old kids to be as organised as the top notch teams. The U-17 football is more about individual flare. Football is a team game one might say, but in here it is more important to have 11 quality players than to have 1 quality team. Let us consider the African nations such as Nigeria and Ghana. They have the most apt specimens who represent them, who are used to run for 90 minutes and after the game have a 50 odd push ups like nothing happened. This is one of the major reasons why they are able to outrun the European teams, which sometimes looks like literally, a men against boys scenario.
But what can this tournament bring to India, is the more important question. A country where the broadcasters haven’t found a reason, as to why do people need to know about what out national football team are doing. A country where we can go mad for a Ronaldo hattrick or a Messi dribble but celebrating a Chettri goal becomes a bit awkward.
What we need to understand here is that what we have at stake, nothing. Everyone knows India are the underdogs and that’s something we can use to our advantage. Last time a team did that was back in 2016 summer and they went on to win the Euro Cup. Such is the burden of expectations that if you don’t have them you feel nothing. But make no mistake this Indian team will have expectations, tons of them. But then let’s ask why? These are 15-16 year old boys born in a country where 9 out of 10 sports channels broadcast cricket and the odd one gets the lowest TRP. So to play safe what can be done here is be the audacious fans that support the team whatsoever the results are and that’s something we have become quite good at over the last 2 months.
For the first time ever a FIFA tournament is being hosted in India and yes we must remember it is FIFA we are talking about. Comprising of 211 members, FIFA is the arguably the biggest sports’ governing body. Support of an organization of this stature and its commercial affiliates is in all ways, a win for India, at least in the global market, if not on field. ADIDAS, Coca-Cola, WANDA, GAZPROM, Hyundai, VISA have already assured complete support to AIFF [All India Football Federation] for the organization of the grand event and for future plans and projects. FIFA have also announced themselves as the national supporters. If one looks at the FIFA.com, it now a day looks more like Incredible India’s page. FIFA have always had a relationship with India that exceeds far beyond political boundaries. Ours is a country where sports has always been more than a profession; an emotion. If India is to establish its roots in world football and live the dream one day then this is a chance we need to grapple on.
Over 70 years ago, a generation of men had the chance of representing their nation on the grandeur of world football. Today we stand with a generation of teenagers who have been given a monumental opportunity to do the same and that too on our own soil. A choice awaits us. A choice whether we, the fans, the administration, the government would walk behind them or not. From 184TH to 96TH in the FIFA rankings, from playing on barren pitches to competing with teams like Germany, Spain in the World Cup, ISL becoming the world’s 3 most attended football league, Indian football has surely come a long way. It is now unto us whether we move forward from, here or stay where we have for the past 70 years. Whatever be our decision we must remember that we live in a nation where a railway ticket collector led us to lift the World Cup in cricket, who knows somewhere amongst these boys might be a hero who writes a script,
“And it’s a magnificent goal!!! India lifts the FIFA World Cup for the first time. And what a performance it has been on a marvellous night of football by this marvellous team. One that would surely go down in history as the night when they wrote an Oscar winning story of their own.”