A crowd of around 50,000 people, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, will witness India’s football World Cup “debut” at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on Friday. But the opening might not be a “sell-out” in the strictest sense, since half of those present would have got in with free passes provided by the central government.
India, led by Manipur’s Amarjit Kiyam, will open their campaign against the USA as the under-17 World Cup, FIFA’s 24-team biennial developmental tournament, will kick off simultaneously in New Delhi and Navi Mumbai. And, to ensure that the turnout for the home team’s game does not leave any red faces, the Local Organising Committee (LOC) has passed on 26,750 tickets to the Sports Ministry for free.
The Ministry, in turn, has distributed these passes to select schools in the Capital, NGOs and bureaucrats. The government has also given out 22,250 free passes for the remaining matches in Delhi.
The decision to distribute the passes for free was taken last month after the Sports Ministry realised that there weren’t many takers for the matches in Delhi. It was at the Ministry’s insistence that India’s matches were shifted from Navi Mumbai to Delhi, with the Prime Minister expressing interest in attending the opening game. “It would have been embarrassing to have empty seats for the opening match and that too, when the PM was present,” a sports ministry official said.
Officials were also keen to organise a grand opening ceremony before India’s first match, as they did during the Confederations Cup in June earlier this year, but FIFA shot down the proposal. The world body’s head of tournaments Jaime Yarza said they do not hold opening ceremonies for age-group events and instead told the government to utilise the funds in youth development.
“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,” Yarza was quoted as saying last month.
However, a ceremony will take place on Friday, though not on the field of play. Prime Minister Modi is expected to felicitate 12 former India captains and greet the teams before the kick-off.
The tournament will end on October 28 at Kolkata’s Salt Lake Stadium, where Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is expected to make an appearance. Her government has spent more than Rs 100 crore on renovating the Salt Lake Stadium. Banerjee has already said FIFA president Gianni Infantino would be treated as a “state guest” when he visits the city for the final.