On Friday afternoon, maybe for the first time ever, the football world will have its eyes on India. The U-17 World Cup draw here today is certain to attract anxious anticipation from the 24 participating nations and the billions who follow the sporting universe’s No.1 sport. The hosts might be tense before their global debut; the usual ‘draw day’ nervousness among the fans, or even teams, will be missing. With no clear favourites or a well-defined time-tested hierarchy in FIFA’s age-group tournaments, the ritual of picking tiny ball from glass bowls isn’t expected to trigger nail-biting drama.
Often derided for under-achieving at the senior level, the African nations rule the under-17 event. Seven out of the 16 editions have been won by Nigeria and Ghana. The previous edition, in 2015, saw an all-African final for the first time, with Nigeria and Mali locking horns. The otherwise dominant European and South American nations, except Brazil, pale in comparison.
The fickle nature of this tournament can be further gauged from the fact that defending champions Nigeria haven’t even qualified. They are the u-17 World Cup’s most successful team, winning it five times and finishing runners-up thrice. The reason for Nigeria not qualifying was the same that has overshadowed each of their triumphs – age fraud. Last August, 26 players from Nigeria’s u-17 team failed age tests conducted ahead of an African Cup of Nations qualifier against Niger. According to some reports, only two players from the starting XI were eligible to play. Not surprisingly, Niger qualified for the World Cup. Nigeria could not.
It’s not just a smear. In an interview to the BBC in 2010, former Nigerian football association president Anthony Kojo Williams confessed in as many words.
“We use over-age players for junior championships, I know that,” he was quoted as saying. “Why not say it? It’s the truth. We always cheat. It’s a fact.”
The success of African nations is often seen with cynicism but has been assisted by the general indifference shown by the others towards this tournament. The Europeans had structure but showed no interest while the South Americans showed willingness but lacked proper system.
Englishman Steve Darby, who has coached in eight countries including India, says it’s only recently that the European nations have begun to see this tournament as a ‘pathway to tournament success in later years.’ “The clubs in the big leagues of Europe have control of the players as opposed to the football associations. (So) initially in the 90s, they didn’t see the value of the tournaments. The South Americans always did,” the former coach of Bahrain, Thailand and Laos national teams says.
“Also, as this is an under-17 tournament many of the European players had school commitments. So overall the tournament wasn’t valued as it is now by European teams.” Still, the traditional big names haven’t made the cut for the 24-team event, which will be held in six Indian cities from October 6 to 28. Holland, Belgium, Italy and Portugal have all missed out.
One of the reasons for this, it is argued, is that top footballing nations adopt a development-oriented approach rather than focussing only on results. Cesc Fabregas (2003) and Toni Kroos (2007) have both won the Golden Ball at the U-17 World Cup but neither Spain nor Germany have won the tournament. Belgian football writer Samindra Kunti says since the country’s first-round exit at the Euro 2000, which they co-hosted with Holland, the focus has been firmly on youth development, where results have become secondary.
“This applies even today for Belgium’s youth teams. The first priority is the development of team and players, results come second,” Kunti says.
Brazil is one of the few countries that has balanced development with results and also affirmed its dominance across all age-group events. They are the second-most successful nation, winning the biennial event three times although their last title came in 2003. Their South American rivals Argentina, meanwhile, have struggled. They could not win even one match in their previous campaign in 2015 and have failed to qualify this time. “The main reason is depth, Brazil still has a lot more depth than other South American countries, even at youth level,” Brazilian journalist Paulo Freitas says.
“The youth championships are fairly important for all South American nations but in the case of Argentina, their federation has been chaotic in recent years, with political issues and lack of money. That which seems to have affected how their youth national teams and football in general is run.”
When the groups are drawn, Brazil, without a doubt, will be the most feared among the 24 teams. But like Mali showed in the previous edition, it’ll be foolhardy to dismiss the smaller nations.