FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017: India may be out but hosting showpiece event is a shot in the arm for sport in country

The date is 25th June, 1983. The event – the Prudential Cup Final between the mighty West Indies and the under-dogs India, who have belied all sayings to have reached the final two. India have already displayed a below par performance with the bat, scripting 183 runs on the board. A target which by no means would even threaten to derail Clive Lloyd’s team as they looked well on course to stamp their authority in world cricket.

FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017: India may be out but hosting showpiece event is a shot in the arm for sport in country

India's U-17 team. Getty Images

Viv Richards top edges a Madan Lal delivery towards the mid-wicket boundary. Kapil Dev, deployed at the short mid-wicket is given less than a miniscule of a chance to latch onto the catch that would take India closer to history.

As Dev continues his sprint towards the ball a sense of nervous anxiety grips over the hallowed stadium of Lord’s. The transistors are clutched a little harder back in India; the ears pressed tighter, awaiting the voice that would either send the nation into frenzy or panic. It seems that the citizens have forgotten to breathe; to utter even a single sound. And then they erupt.

Thirty four years have passed ever since that day when a squad of 11 men united to fill India with bursts of restlessness and euphoria. The triumph in 1983 has been carved as a moment that changed the Indian sporting culture forever as people soon embraced the values that sports had to offer.

Cricketing wins have been accorded; Olympic medals, though sparse, have been brought home. Some sports leapfrogged miles ahead of others while a few have established themselves as potential markets. Yet, a moment that would replicate the elation of 1983 went missing. A moment that would mark a defining moment ahead for Indian sports.

9th October 2017 - India had already mapped its footballing legacy three days earlier when the under-17 team became the first Indian side to participate in a FIFA World Cup. However, it was the second game against Colombia that truly established their presence. In the 82nd minute of the game, Sanjeev Stalin’s corner found its way to India’s tallest outfield player Jeakson Thounaojam.

The inswinging ball was headed over the Colombian defence towards the net. As the ball approached the goal, thousands in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium stopped in anticipation as a cloud of silence engulfed the stadium.

“Would it be saved? Will it be a goal?” For a second, voices choked as all prayed with bated breath. The scenes of proud celebrations and hoarse cries that followed were unlike any that has ever been seen. One that would be remembered with the historical moment even years later.

A tourney of beliefs, dreams and beginnings

Ever since FIFA handed India the hosting rights of the U-17 World Cup, it was well known that the move was more in line to tap the emerging market that the country possessed rather than the unorganised talent pool at disposal. Strange as that may seem. Isn’t every alternate kid in India either a cricketer or a footballer? Isn’t the Maidan in Kolkata filled with young enthusiasts trying to perfectly ape Lionel Messi or Christiano Ronaldo? Isn’t a derby between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal filled with heated exchanges and aggressive promises?

However, on closer inspection, the facts revealed a rather dirty picture. Stadiums lacked in facilities. The grass-root talents were rarely exploited. Lack of international exposures and amnesties proved massive hurdles. Uninterested administrations and over-age players entering the age-categories were concerns. ‘The Beautiful Game’ remained a haphazard mess.

Once India was officially allocated as the hosts, preparations began on an upswing to host the country’s first ever FIFA World Cup. It would indeed be a moment that would help tap talent, not only for the event but also for the future.

The All India Football Federation opened junior academies, shifting its sole focus from the senior team to youth development. The U-18 League was scrapped in 2013 and in 2012, U-14 Nationals were held for the first time to mould a team for the competition four years later. Trips to Germany, Luxemburg, Brazil, Russia, South Africa, France, Norway and Spain were undertaken with efforts to build a core team that would be defined by fitness and concentration.

From the era of Nicolai Adam, a former Azerbaijan coach to Luis Norton de Matos, the aim remained on shaping and building a squad that would help India realise its dream of participating in the senior FIFA World Cup in the next few editions. The U-17 preparations were just the initiation.

Therefore, the drubbings received by the Blue Colts in the group stages hardly remained a surprise. Losses in the margins of 0-3, 1-2 and 0-4 against USA, Columbia and Ghana respectively were honestly anticipated. An early exit was scripted and it turned out to be that way.

Yet, an atmosphere of gloom prevailed over the millions who were glued to their screens when the inevitable did occur. As the youngsters in the blue jerseys burst out in dejection, an outburst of pride swept over. The stadium harmoniously applauded each player for their big-hearted efforts in a competition that was decorated with boulders and obstacles for them.

Komal Thatal and Anwar Ali came close to scoring goals; Rahul Kannoly, heartbreakingly plunged a volley towards the crossbar and Dheeraj Singh emerged as goalkeeper who stood tall, earmarking himself as a senior-level keeper. Yes, the truth did hurt but instead of spending hours on the disappointments, plans for bidding for the U-20 World Cup soon gained momentum.

From major overhauls of the stadia across the nation, particularly the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata, for which the state government shed 121 crores, to pocketing commercial gains, the hosting of the tournament has proved to be an occasion which can shift the sporting culture in India.

Yes, the kids failed to make an immediate impact in terms of results but when viewed in the larger perspective, they managed to achieve much more. By braving out tales of determination and grit, they won over the crowds. Despite being aware that they would fail to match up to the standards of their rivals, the players refused to give up and kept fighting, turning over the cricket-crazy nation into a footballing one, if even for a week.

Just like Kapil Dev’s catch managed to reform Indian cricket, it is but certain that the tears of the young players would transform into an unbridled passion, with the desire to strive for further glories helping them achieve successes unforeseen.

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Updated Date: Oct 13, 2017 21:27:05 IST

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