By Dileep Premachandran in Bengaluru/The Guardian
The main headline on the sports page of the Malayala Manorama, a Kerala-based newspaper that sells 2.5mn copies a day, dealt with Argentina’s World Cup 2018 qualifying travails.
Below that, however, was a story titled “27 locals and Brazil”, about how the Brazil Under-17 World Cup squad had trained with boys from an academy in Kochi, one of the six host cities for the first FIFA tournament that India will host. There is considerable despondency among the football-lovers of Kochi and elsewhere in India that the Real Madrid-bound Vinicius Junior will not be around to lend some stardust to the competition after Flamengo, his current club, pulled the plug on his passage to India.
Another who has been in the spotlight, England’s Jadon Sancho, is expected to play only the group games before returning to Borussia Dortmund, the club he chose this summer after leaving Manchester City.
For India’s young footballers, this is very much a step into the unknown. Sunil Chhetri and Bhaichung Bhutia, the talismen of the national side this century, have spoken of the twinges of jealousy they will feel when they watch their young countrymen take the field against USA in Delhi today.
Amarjit Singh Kiyam, from the north-eastern state of Manipur, moved half the breadth of the subcontinent to Chandigarh in Punjab to train at the academy there when he was 10. A Barcelona fan who idolises Andres Iniesta, the No. 8 with the captain’s armband epitomises Indian football’s drift away from its traditional heartlands.
Once, Indian football meant Bengal, Goa and Kerala, three states where the passion for the game rivals that on view in Latin America. But it is the north-eastern states, whose citizens still face much discrimination in many parts of India, that have become the new hotbed. The bulk of the under-17 squad come from the region, with Manipur accounting for as many as eight.
Neighbouring Mizoram, which gave Indian football its Leicester City-like Cinderella story when FC Aizawl won the I-League last season, is also represented. Bengal has three representatives and Kerala only one, while Goa, which once provided national team captains such as Bruno Coutinho and Climax Lawrence, does not have a single player in the squad.
Dig a little deeper and it is not hard to see how far Indian football has to travel to catch up with much of the world. Only four of the 21 players are attached to a local club, the little-known Punjab-based Minerva FC.
Sunny Dhaliwal, a goalkeeper, is on the books of Toronto FC. The rest train at an academy run by the All India Football Federation (AIFF). Contrast that with Spain, who have five players attached to Real Madrid and four from Barcelona, or England, where five of the team are part of the junior squads at Stamford Bridge.
The cash-rich Indian Super League (ISL), which launched in 2014, has changed the Indian football landscape, and there is talk of an eventual amalgamation with its poorer cousin, the I-League, but youth development has seldom been a priority.
The senior game is in better shape. After the ignominy of a World Cup qualifying defeat by Guam, India have moved up nearly 70 places to 107 in the FIFA rankings. Bengaluru FC, the two-time I-League champions who are poised to switch to the ISL, are on the verge of a second successive AFC Cup final, and Dimitar Berbatov, once of Tottenham and Manchester United, will spearhead the Kerala Blasters’ push for the ISL crown.
On the organisational front, the notoriously inept AIFF pulled off a coup by appointing Joy Bhattacharya, a former team director of Kolkata Knight Riders – the two-time Indian Premier League (cricket) champions – as project director for the event. “The one thing we knew was that things in India don’t go according to plan, so we started a long time ago,” Bhattacharya told the Guardian.
“We put a lot of pressure on state associations three years before the tournament. I don’t blame the stakeholders because it’s a matter of getting government money and sanctions (for projects) … there are a huge number of laws, bylaws and agencies to go through. There have been a few hiccups but if you look at the venues now, they’ve been completely transformed.”
The fans cannot wait for kick-off. “This tournament is incredibly exciting for most of us students and football fans here,” said Rukalpa De, a student at the Indian Institute of Technology in Guwahati, the Assamese capital that will host France. “It’s a great opportunity for India to be part of the global football picture. This will hopefully take us a step closer to the ultimate dream, of World Cup qualification.”
Srikanth Muraleedharan, a technology manager, called it a “once-in-a-lifetime chance for India to be part of a FIA World Cup at any level”. “As a fan, it hurts that football is not considered in the same league as cricket or, nowadays, even kabaddi,” he said. Shubhodip, a Kolkata native studying commerce at Christ University in Bangalore, is disappointed that he will not be able to get back home to watch matches from the group featuring England.
“I’ve been watching European football for over 10 years but deep down, we all want to support India on the biggest football stages,” he said. “My friends in Kolkata are making banners, buying replica shirts and getting extremely excited about watching the matches.”
This interest has translated into robust ticket sales. “Almost every game in Kerala (which hosts Brazil twice, in addition to all of Spain’s group matches) is sold out,” said Bhattacharya. “India’s first game in Delhi is sold out. The one on the ninth is almost so. We’ve given away a fair amount of tickets to schools, to promote the sport. Every time we’ve released tickets in Kolkata for the final, they’ve sold out within hours. This kind of response for a youth tournament is unprecedented in India.
“There is a phenomenal amount of interest in international football. Now, it’s like: ‘I watch football, I love Messi or Ronaldo but I also want to see my national side do well.’ This World Cup, in a sense, is the cherry on top.”
Rahul Maniraja, who works for a sports technology company in Chennai, hopes to watch games in Kochi and Goa. “It’s a proud moment for Indian football fans to watch the future stars of the game,” he said, of a tournament that first introduced us to players such as Neymar, Cesc Fabregas and Toni Kroos. “We hope this is the start of something special, with many Indian players from this tournament going on to represent the senior side in the coming years.”
In that future, many will fall into the chasm that separates potential from the professional game.
For every Neymar, there is a Nii Lamptey, hailed as the next Pele by the man himself after the 1991 competition. But for now, the 504 players should soak in the acclaim, as a country starved of top-level football opens its arms to embrace the future of the beautiful game.
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