Goalmouth melee: Winds of change are blowing through Indian football

India is far from being prepared to host big-ticket football events like the Under-17 World Cup.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | Published: December 15, 2013 3:27 am

An air of expectancy and positivity has gripped the Football House in the capital. Inside the tinted glass facade with a giant football sitting neatly on top of it,grand plans are brewing to put India on football’s world map.

Winds of change are blowing through Indian football. Attribute all this to the U-17 World Cup,which India will host in 2017. Buoyed by it,an idea to host the U-20 World Championship has now been floated. FIFA,it is believed,has ‘advised’ India to bid for it. And if India wants it,India will get it.

During his last trip to Delhi,FIFA chief Sepp Blatter said he ‘won’t rest till he sees Indian football where it belongs.’ The decision regarding the host country for the U-20 World Cup,in all probability,will be made in 2016,which will be Blatter’s last year as FIFA president. That might well be his parting gift to India.

Even as the national team slumps from disaster to humiliation and the domestic clubs toil in obscurity,India has arrived on football’s international stage. The increased interest from European clubs in the last five years proves that India has become an important market for the sport. With FIFA awarding the U-17 World Cup,that feeling has now been reinforced.

The AIFF now hopes it will manage to attract glittering international and club sides more frequently,just as they now grace the castles in sands of oil-rich Gulf countries and the chrome-steel stadiums of East Asia. The bid to host the Club World Cup in 2015 and 2016 is seen as a step in that direction. Lest we forget,there is also the Indian Super League,an IPL-style tournament that promises to bring the most skillful exponents of the beautiful game to play in the country.

Indeed,the football world is coming to India. But is the country ready to host it? With zero infrastructure,a shallow pool of players and no industry in place to support the growth of football,has the cash-strapped AIFF bitten off more than it can chew?

AIFF general secretary Kushal Das says these events are an opportunity to do something that has never been done in Indian football: to build stadiums and groom youth. “We have ignored these issues for far too long. If ever there was a time to focus on them,it is now,” Das says.

Past imperfect

The federation’s president,Praful Patel,is under no illusions as to the challenges that stare at them. He sent out a chiding reminder soon after India were awarded the U-17 World Cup,saying “no state government comes forward and supports the development of infrastructure”.

Patel needn’t look beyond his home turf — the Cooperage Stadium that falls under that supervision of Western India Football Association (WIFA) of which he is the president. The situation at Cooperage is pitiable. In 2011,FIFA granted $2.5 million for the refurbishment of the dilapidated stadium. But this was followed by a series of setbacks for the project. First,a litigation by a local residents’ group brought work to a standstill. Once that hurdle was cleared,WIFA was stuck in the maze of obtaining several clearances from the municipal corporation and state government before work could proceed. Consequently,what was originally a half-year job is still incomplete,more than three years after it began.

Das says the involvement of government authorities,state associations and FIFA will ensure Cooperage-like incidents are avoided when the refurbishment of other stadiums begins. “The government has earmarked Rs 125 crore to upgrade stadiums across the country. FIFA will be closely monitoring it and the football fraternity realises that this is a golden opportunity to build proper infrastructure,” Das,a former CFO with the ICC,says. “With all stakeholders on board,we are confident there will be no delays.”

India’s bumbling tryst with big-ticket sport events is legendary — be it the Asian Games in 1982,the Commonwealth Games in 2010,next month’s Lusofonia Games or something as straightforward as an international friendly between Argentina and Venezuela two years ago. Despite ‘involvement of all stakeholders’ in each of those events,the country huffed and puffed its way towards getting things right,putting its worst foot forward each time.

The most relevant citation here would be of the friendly between Argentina and Venezuela. The ‘Messi Match’ showed just how much India had to catch up in terms of infrastructure and conduct. The game,played in Kolkata on September 2,2011,was the first international friendly to be played in the country.

The landmark tie became famous for other dubious firsts too. With no practice venues available,the two teams had to train at the Salt Lake Stadium,a departure from FIFA norms which doesn’t allow teams to train at the match venue. It was also for the first time that the two sides played on an artificial turf. The concerned look on Messi’s face throughout the 90 minutes each time he twisted and turned told the story.

For spectators,it was certainly an “I was there” moment but hardly a delightful experience. Nearly 75,000 fans crammed the three tiers of the Salt Lake Stadium. They sat squeezed together on the terrace steps,passing around cigarettes that they sneaked inside despite the three-layered scanning and security,mesmerised by the genius of Argentina’s No. 10. The bases of pillars that hold the roof had turned red by years of spitting of betel leaf juice.

For a maidan regular,this was routine. But several hundred fans had travelled from across the country and for most,this was the first time they saw a football match ‘live’ from the stands. It was an opportunity to lure these fans back to the terraces again,may be for an I-League encounter. But the opportunity was lost.

The Salt Lake Stadium is notorious for its blackouts. Several derbies between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan have had to be halted because of power cuts. For the entire duration of the match,local authorities prayed they wouldn’t be embarrassed. They weren’t — at least in front of the 75,000 in the stands and the millions watching it live on television. Luck deserted them during the post-match press conference though,held roughly 15 minutes after the game. As Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella took his seat in front of hundred-odd media persons,the lights went off inside the stadium. Red-faced organisers had to eventually call off the media conference.

A half-fit Messi was the only saving grace that evening.

‘War-footing’

Maybe,it was because the match was organised by a private Kolkata-based based agency. Perhaps,things will be more professional with FIFA around. But winning the bid to host under-17 World Cup was the easy part. As Patel himself says,the hard work begins now. According to the federation,they need around two to four stadiums to successfully host the under-17 World Cup and just two for the Club World Cup in 2015,assuming India gets it.

Patel cranked up the curiosity and also raised a few eye brows by announcing at a press conference that there are two stadiums he knows that can host Club World Cup games. He won’t name them,though.

Curiously,there are just two stadiums in the country that come close to matching FIFA standards: the JLN Stadium in New Delhi,the showpiece venue for the CWG,and Chennai’s Nehru Stadium. The South Indian city,though,doesn’t feature in the list of prospective cities that will host the games,which means seven stadiums need to be upgraded in the next three years. With three major cities in the shortlist — Kolkata,Mumbai and Bangalore — all have stadiums with artificial turfs,AIFF has some tough decisions to make.

Shaji Prabhakaran,FIFA’s development officer for South and Central Asia,says AIFF should use this tournament as a catalyst for change. “From FIFA’s end,we wanted India to bid as it will help achieve its potential through this tournament. It fitted well with the development plan,” he says.

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