U-17 World Cup – A Future Prospect For Indian Football
Winning the U-17 FIFA World Cup hosting rights is the best opportunity India has bagged for itself to showcase its own football talents. It’s almost like a Pandora’s box that will not only open up a future for our young footballers, but will also create a platform for everyone associated with football, right from administrators to club owners to leave an indelible mark in the global football arena. Soumyadip Das explores the endless possibilities, if everything is done right
.U-17 FIFA World Cup is the fourth oldest FIFA competition after the FIFA World Cup, Olympic Football and FIFA U-20 World Cup. The competition has always provided a stage for young talents to showcase their calibre in front of the world, and is fiercely competitive in its own rights. India, often considered as a ‘Sleeping Giant’ by FIFA, has been selected as host nation for the 2017 edition of the tournament. It promises to be an important platform for Indian football to emerge from the shadows and rub shoulders with the elite in world football.
It’s a memorable experience for a football fan to hear the national anthem of his country played at the biggest stages of world football. Soon the Indian football fan is also going to live the experience. India, till date, haven’t played in the main stage of a football World Cup at any level. That is going to change in 2017, as India will be hosting the U-17 World Cup and as a result will automatically qualify as per tournament rules. Although the glamour is not the same as it is at the senior level, still playing a World Cup at any level is a matter of pride, and India will be gearing up to do justice to the occasion.
Before the start of the bidding process, FIFA was keen for India to bid for the hosting rights. It is a well known fact that FIFA is interested in spreading the game in India because of the huge Indian market. Hosting such an event is a sure way of catching the attention of the media and the public. India agreed to be part of the bidding, and after some initial difficulties in getting the necessary clearances from the government, finally submitted the bid. On 4th December, 2013, a landmark day for the country’s football, India beat other bidders Azerbaijan, South Africa, Ireland and Uzbekistan and got the right to host the 24-nation biennial mega event. The news delighted each and every Indian football fan, as the nation, starved of international football experience at the highest level, finally got the opportunity to join the party and cheer for their team in the world stage.
A tournament where footballers below the age of 17 represent their countries, the U-17 World Cup also consists of qualification and final rounds, just like its senior counterpart. It provides the starlets a platform to showcase their skills in front of the world and is an important stepping stone to becoming future stars at the senior level.
The first edition of the tournament was staged in 1985 in China and subsequent editions have been organised every two years since then. Called the FIFA U-16 World Championship in its original avatar, in 1991, it was rechristened as FIFA U-17 World Championship, and then again in 2007 as FIFA U-17 World Cup, its current name. The most recent edition was hosted by the United Arab Emirates in 2013. The next edition will take place in Chile in 2015, and then, as we all know, India will be hosting it in 2017.
Nigeria has been the most dominant nation in the tournament’s history till date, with four titles including the most recent version in 2013 and three runners-up finishes. Brazil is the second most decorated team with three titles, while Ghana and Mexico have won two titles each.
The event consists of a round-robin group stage, where teams in each group play against each other. The final group standings decide which teams qualify for the knockout phase, where successive matches are played and the winning team advances through the competition while the losing team is eliminated. Eventually, the last two teams standing lock horns in the final to decide the tournament champion. The teams losing in the semi-finals face each other to decide the third spot.
From 1985 to 2005 there were 16 teams in the competition, divided into four groups of four teams each in the group phase. From 2007 the tournament was increased to 24 teams, divided into six groups of four teams each. The top two teams of each group along with the four best third placed teams make the knockout stage. From 1985 to 1993, matches were played over two 40-minute halves with two extra time halves of 10 minutes each for knockout matches in case of a deadlock. In the 1995 edition held in Ecuador, the standard duration of matches was extended to the traditional format of 45 minutes per half (with 15 minutes per half in extra time for knockout games). From 2011, the extra time has been discontinued to save young players from getting exhausted, and all knockout games progress directly to penalties if tied after 90 minutes of regulation time. Till date, 73 teams have participated in this competition, five of them (Morocco, Sweden, Venezuela, Slovakia and Iraq) made their tournament debut in 2013. Brazil and USA hold the record for maximum participation, both having played in the final stage 14 times. Brazil with 40 matches won hold the record for most number of wins, followed by Nigeria and Ghana with 34 and 27 wins respectively. Only Brazil and Nigeria have scored 100 or more goals in the history of the competition, with Brazil holding the record for highest number of victories (142). Florent Sinama Pongolle and Souleymane Coulivaly hold the record for highest number of goals in a single tournament (9 each) in 2001 and 2011 respectively. In the 1997 edition, Spain recorded a 13-0 victory over New Zealand which is the highest margin of victory. Nigeria has won the FIFA Fair-play trophy of U-17 World Cup a record three times. Nigeria holds the unwanted record of most consecutive matches (16) without victory while Brazil holds the record for most consecutive wins (7).
The host nation gets an automatic spot in the main event while the other teams play the qualification rounds to earn the right. Every confederation organises different tournaments for the teams to qualify. Those tournaments are- AFC U-16 Championship (for Asian teams), African U-17 Championship (for African teams), CONCACAF U-17 Championship (for North & Central American teams), South American U-17 Football Championship (for South American teams), OFC U-17 Championship (for Oceania teams) and UEFA European U-17 Championship (for European teams). Four teams each from Asia, North and Central America, South America and Africa, six teams from Europe and one team from Oceania qualify for the main competition. The remaining spot is reserved for the host nation.
Superstar in the Making
Outstanding players worldwide have been known to ‘jump’ the grades, because of their exceptional skills, straight to the senior national team at a tender age. More than 100 players have played FIFA World Cup while being eligible for the U-17 version. For example, Pele, regarded as the world’s best ever player, made his debut for Brazil in a 2-1 defeat against Argentina in 1957, aged 16 years and nine months. Even at that age, he scored Brazil’s only goal to enter the history books as the youngest goal scorer in international football. Diego Maradona too made his senior debut for Argentina at the age of 16. In recent times also the trend has continued. Argentina and Barcelona star, Lionel Messi, made his full debut in 2005 at the age of 18. His first senior game for Argentina came few weeks after he led Argentina to victory in the 2005 U-20 World Cup, beating Nigeria 2-1 in the final. Pele and another Brazilian great, Romario, in 2010, urged the Selecao’s then coach, Dunga, to include Neymar, Brazil’s newest star, in his squad for the 2010 World Cup, after some courageous performances in the Nigeria 2009 U-17 World Cup. Players like David Silva, Cesc Fabregas, Landon Donovan, Fernando Torres, Andres Iniesta, Eden Hazard, Pablo Zabaleta, Tim Krul, Mamadou Sakho, Christian Benteke, Javi Garcia etc. have showed their spark in this competition through the years and have now become indispensable parts of some of the famous and successful clubs and countries. Among the players emerging from the U-17 World Cup, Emanuel Petit and Andres Iniesta have scored in FIFA World Cup final, while altogether 10 players have played FIFA World Cup final for the winning team. Iker Casillas has won FIFA World Cup as a captain (in 2010).
The following video contains some of the greatest moments of U-17 World Cup history.
As the host country, India will participate in the 2017 edition. It is a great exposure for Indian Football. Few years ago, FIFA President Sepp Blatter said in an interview – “Indian Football is still lagging by 100 years”. The scenario hasn’t changed much till now.
Indian football is going through a lean phase. India played in the 2011 AFC Championship, but lost all their group matches to get knocked out without a single point. Recently, India has even lost the final of SAFF Cup to Afganistan, a tournament in which India has otherwise seen success over the years. Yet, FIFA has given India a great opportunity which they must look to capitalize on. FIFA President Sepp Blatter believes that there is great hidden potential in Indian football and the U-17 World Cup will provide a platform to realise some of that.
As India needs to develop stadiums and facilities as per FIFA guidelines, it will also go a long way towards improving the football infrastructure of the country which cries for a much needed facelift. Currently, there are two stadiums in India (Delhi and Chennai) which meet the standards required to host a FIFA match. India is planning to upgrade several more stadiums to FIFA standard and have identified stadiums in Kolkata, Guwahati, Kochi, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Goa, and Pune as possible venues. This will in turn benefit the clubs which use these stadiums as their home ground.
Apart from hosting the tournament successfully, India is also looking to make a mark on the playing field in front of a global audience. To realise that dream, East Bengal, one of the leading Indian football clubs, have decided to start talent development programmes in three places (Tejpur in Assam, Jalpaiguri in West Bengal and Kannur in Kerala) , with the co-operation of the Tea – Board. As part of this program, the club will provide technical support to groom the players under the age of 13 who will potentially don national colours in the 2017 tournament.
Recently, AIFF General Secretary Kushal Das said in an interview that the Coca-Cola Cup (formerly the Mir Iqbal Hossain Trophy), an under-15 tournament, will be one of the primary auditioning grounds for the Under-17 World Cup Team for 2017. More than 40,000 players participated in the last edition of the tournament held across 75 cities. This tournament is yet to launch any major players, but keeping the 2017 U-17 World Cup in mind, AIFF, in partnership with Coca Cola, will rejuvenate the tournament, to hunt young talents for the future. Once promising players are identified, AIFF plans to groom them for 2017 through international exposure, guidance and training facilities. AIFF has already selected five young players (Jitendra Singh, Amit Tudu, Subrata Das Prasenjit Chakraborty and Abhijit Sarkar) to participate in “Coke Coaching and Conditioning Camp” in Brazil in next May, and such exercises are set to continue in the coming years.
In the recently held World Cup trophy tour in India, Selecao’s World Cup winning captain of 1970, Carlos Alberto, emphasized on the importance of hard work and training. During the event in Kolkata, he called up two U-16 National Camp trainees and said,
“Practise, practise and practise. You will have to work hard every day with the junior players if you want them to become stars of future. The stars of today like (Lionel) Messi and Neymar have put endless hours of practice in the academies of the clubs like Barcelona and Santos to become what they are today”.
Effect on the Women’s game
In the senior level, India’s women’s team has shown some strong performances in AFC Asian Championship and World Cup qualifiers. The FIFA ranking of the women’s team (49) is also much higher than the men’s team. If India can host the men’s event successfully, they can also try to bid for the rights to host U-17 Women’s World Cup in future which can help in further development of women’s football in the country. AIFF is already looking to build a good women’s squad at U-17 level as well. If they can get hosting rights to the U-17 women’s World Cup it can help boost their plans to improve the women’s game in the country, and the U-17 men’s World Cup can be a stepping stone in that direction.
FIFA has seen the potential among Indian players and the passion of fans for the game; that’s why they provided India with this golden opportunity. In the past, India enjoyed success at the Asian level but the graph has gone downward ever since. This is India’s biggest chance to turn the tide and they should make full use of it. If they succeed, we might see India take the first steps towards becoming a football powerhouse in future. Spain and Brazil are two teams who have reaped the benefits of getting a good team from U-17 level to progress through to the senior level. Given time, there is no reason why India cannot replicate such success if they work hard from the grassroots level.