It may be eleven against eleven with one ball, but the upcoming U-17 World Cup will find it tough to knock cricket from the sporting spotlight
The history of Indian sports could have been very different if football officials had been more far-sighted.
Even after qualifying for the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, the Indian team did not participate at that fourth global tournament. One of the reasons was what the late Sailen Manna revealed, one of the best defenders India has ever produced. “For us, the Olympics were the highest level and we all dreamed about participating in them.”
The World Cup had yet to reach the heights of importance it has attained now. Moreover, the global event was for professionals and the Olympic Games were strictly for amateurs. “We were not sure whether we would be allowed to participate in the Olympics if we had taken part in the World Cup,” said Manna.
So, India had a preparation camp but they did not travel to Brazil. There was no Bela Guttmann and his Benfica-curse of 100 years involved. India have not come close to reaching another World Cup in the following 67 years. And nor is there is a chance in the near future.
In 1983, the history of Indian sports changed permanently. The country won an eight-nation “World Cup” in England and then all hell broke loose. India became a country where people follow only one sport – cricket. All remaining disciplines found a permanent category in an Indian’s daily life after that – “not cricket.”
Will the FIFA U-17 World Cup being hosted in India change the course of sports history there? Not really. First, the Indian team is not going to win the tournament, despite their best efforts.
They are far behind other football-playing nations in terms of excellence. Accept that fact. The tournament will not generate hysteria like another win in the 2011 ICC World Cup created. Second, the U-17 World Cup, or for that matter, any age group football tournament, is never followed by Indian TV viewers.
It has almost a zero-impact on the Indian psyche unless, of course, it is a U-19 Cricket World Cup. If Indians were truly interested in age group sports in ‘other games’, as a sporting nation, India could have progressed far.
India was picked as the host nation of the U-17 World Cup in 2015 and there was no age group league or a football tournament for that criteria then. The U-15 youth league began that year and recently it was announced that a combination of the U-17 and U-19 football teams will be playing in the I League after the U-17 World Cup.
Nice effort on the part of the All India Football Federation (AIFF), but it could have been better had it begun in 2015 with the U-15 and U-16 colts. At least Indian people could have become familiar with some of the names of the future stars.
Luis Norton de Matos, the Portuguese manager who has taken the challenge of coaching the Indian team through this World Cup, was hired in March 2017. He got exactly six months to prepare. Perhaps this gives the best indication of India’s expected performance.
What de Matos says is key – “at this age group, players have ordinarily had at least ten years of experience in competitive football while we have barely played for the last two in friendly matches and tournaments.”
The United Arab Emirates did the same before hosting the tournament in 2013 – played numerous friendlies and toured Europe in exhibition tournaments. They finished without a point in the following World Cup.
India, in a group with the United States, Colombia and Ghana, might repeat what their Asian hosts did four years ago. Make no mistake, this is not an effort to dishearten the Indian youngsters. Ronaldinho, the legend from Brazil, described his experience at the U-17 World Cup the other day, saying how the tournament had changed his future when he won it.
The former Barcelona footballer remains the only player to have won both the U-17 and Senior FIFA World Cups. Even a giant footballing nation like Germany has yet to win its first U-17 World Cup despite the presence of a proper infrastructure.
U-17 World Cup is the true stepping stone for future footballers. It requires a rich history and tradition to be able to succeed and prosper. Nwankwu Kanu, the legend from Nigeria and an U-17 World Cup winner, feels that the players should use such a huge opportunity at this tender age to show their talent and make a name for themselves.
The Sanjeev Stalins and the Komal Thatals will definitely put their best feet forward in the tournament beginning on October 6, 2017. Whether they can achieve something to change the history of football in cricket-obsessed India is, of course, difficult to foresee.