India set for debut on world football stage with all eyes on U17 opener vs the US

By Samindra Kunti in New Delhi, India

October 6 – India are set to make their World Cup debut in a historic opening match against the United States with Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister, on hand to welcome teams.

The recent history of Indian football has been a story of poverty of achievement with the national team, the Blue Tigers, barely registering credible results. Under English nomad coach Stephen Constantine the senior team is on the brink of qualifying for the 2019 Asian Cup, but that is more a consequence of the tournament’s newly expanded 24-team format than genuine sporting progress.

The U-17 team, led by Manipur’s Amarjit Kiyam and coached by the Portuguese Luis Norton de Matos, has enjoyed substantial support from the All India Football Federation with the Indian FA investing more than €2 million in the young team. In the last two years they have travelled the world to 18 different countries, including Brazil, Mexico, Germany, Norway and the United Arab Emirates, on exposure tours and camps.

Yet India will remain the underdog in Group A against the US, Colombia and Ghana. Indian football has neither a developed grassroots nor fine-tuned youth development structure, leaving the age groups of 5 to 14 to fend for themselves. In the I-League Minerva from Chandigarh, Aizawl FC and Shillong Lajong, both from Mizoram, and Mumbai FC are among the few clubs to invest resources in youth football.

In the Indian Super League, the Bollywood version of the IPL cricket, the participating franchises have the contractual obligation, as laid down in the licensing requirements, to do grassroots work, but only lip-service is being paid. The underdeveloped ecosystem has also been detrimental to the senior national team.

A merger of the I-League and ISL may be a solution to India’s chronic problems, but the idea is stuck in conception at the moment, with IMG-Reliance, the financial backer of the ISL, not keen on a new and unified league.

Still, the Indian U-17 team will aim to offer a grand opening to the World Cup at the refurbished Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in the capital New Delhi. FIFA approved the idea of Modi giving a speech at the opening game, but India’s head of state will refrain from doing so. Last summer Vladimir Putin delivered a robust speech at opening match of the Confederations Cup in Russia.

The venue in Delhi received a face-lift ahead of the tournament with three new dressing rooms, new safe evacuation gates, improved lighting, two new training grounds with floodlights and an international standard pitch.

“The level of interest, the level of preparation, the level of attention goes up definitely one or two notches,” said tournament director Javier Ceppi. “Everybody wants to see a full stadium.”

The possibility of an opening ceremony was a thorny issues in the run-up to the tournament. Local organisers wanted to put on a spectacle with the Prime Minister in attendance, but FIFA rebuked the idea.

“We believe that the main focus should remain on football and the players, and that the investment necessary for an opening ceremony is better deployed in the youth and in football development of the country, even more so now with the AIFF’s ambitious plans to lay solid foundations for India’s footballing future,” said Jaime Varza, head of FIFA tournaments.

Delhi was not a natural choice for India’s group games, but with high public spending the matches of the hosts were moved from Mumbai to the capital to cater for the political class and the VIPs. In total the central government has invested more than €15 million in the existing infrastructure, updating and upgrading the stadiums in Kochi, Goa, Guwahati and Kolkata, the other host cities. The last host venue in Mumbai is privately owned.

The opening match, with other games kicking off simultaneously in Navi Mumbai, will not be a sell-out in the strict sense of the word, with 26,750 tickets routed through the central government, which has distributed these tickets to selected schools and NGOs across Delhi in a neat PR exercise. The government has also taken up 22,250 tickets for the other games in the Indian capital.

Against this background, India’s teenagers will enter a brave new world against the US on Friday. What constitutes success for the hosts in group A is unclear: India play by virtue of hosting the tournament and face a baptism as difficult as any, but coach de Matos is banking on hard work and dependable tactics to get a ‘respectable result.’

Last year the USA trounced India at the AIFF Youth Cup in Goa 4-0. This time the Americans boost CJ Dos Santos from Benfica in goal, defender Sergino Dest from Ajax Amsterdam, Tim Weah, the son of the legendary George Weah, and striker Josh Sargant, who participated in the U-20 World Cup in South Korea and is on the radar of several European clubs.

“We know we have a small percentage of winning against the US, but you never know what will happen in a game of football,” said India coach de Matos.

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