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Debayan Sen previews the FIFA Under-17 World Cup

ESPN - Wednesday 4th October, 2017

It is a tournament that has, over 32 years, given us the likes of Neymar, Ronaldinho, Cesc Fabregas, Toni Kroos and Iker Casillas.

The FIFA Under-17 World Cup will need the weight of all that history when it kicks off in India on October 6, because it won't be just another global tournament - it will be the world's most popular sport fighting for its place in the world's largest, and potentially richest, untapped market. At stake will be the future of millions of children who could make a career playing the beautiful game, and the billions of dollars' worth of long-term TV and merchandising deals that could be spun out of it.

In some ways, the moment is right. These are exciting, if somewhat uncertain, times in Indian football. The domestic league structure is undergoing a massive churn with the traditional I-League gradually ceding ground to the franchise-based Indian Super League (ISL) since the latter's inception in 2014. The I-League itself saw an underdog story capture international headlines this year, with unfancied Aizawl FC winning the national league title on a shoestring budget and in a run that brought about comparisons with Leicester City's Premier League title triumph in 2016.

The senior team has been on an upward swing in performances, unbeaten through most of the last year and a half. Their FIFA world ranking rose from 173 not more than two years ago to 97 in August this year, and there's genuine optimism about the Indian team's chances of qualification for the AFC Asian Cup in UAE in 2019.

And the growth of satellite television and broadcasting rights means that a football fan in India can watch the world's top tournaments -- the World Cups, the Euros, Champions and Europa Leagues, and every top domestic league match played from Seattle to Sydney -- at almost no cost.

Mustafa Ghouse, CEO of JSW Sports, which owns teams across several sports in India including the ISL team Bengaluru FC, believes the appetite for multiple sports has been growing in the last few years.

"In football, there is more money being pumped in to market and promote the sport. Who would have thought that one could get 15,000 or even 20,000 people outside of the Kolkata derby [played between I-League rivals Mohun Bagan and East Bengal] on a regular basis? In Kerala, you get an average crowd of 50,000 for each game," he says.

Coming in the backdrop of these developments, the Indian U-17 team should revel in the spotlight on them during this World Cup. Grouped with USA, Colombia and two-time champions Ghana, it would be a brave punt to tip them for progress to the round of 16, but even if they can give a satisfactory account of themselves as individuals and a team, they would have done much for the profile of football in India.

"We've never had anything of this magnitude in India to compare with in the past," says Sunil Chhetri, captain of the Indian senior national team, also the man with most caps and international goals for India. "The next Messis and Ronaldos of the world will all be here, and our team will be rubbing shoulders with them."


The benefits of this World Cup will not be one-sided, by any means. With China firmly part of the football ecosystem, India is perhaps the biggest market untapped by FIFA. The numbers are stunning: Half the current 1.3 billion population is under 25, two-thirds are under 35; it is projected to be the world's most populous country in the next decade. And the growing economy means more people with access to the internet; the number of users in the country was estimated to be somewhere between 450 to 465 million in June this year, with 79 percent of that traffic accessed through mobiles.

Over the past decade, the world has started taking notice of that potential. It began with former FIFA president Sepp Blatter's India visit in 2007; the next year, Bayern Munich staged a testimonial match in Kolkata for Oliver Kahn -- they returned in 2012 for a benefit match for India's former captain Bhaichung Bhutia. Diego Forlan also visited Kolkata in 2010, days after he won the Golden Boot and the Golden Ball at the World Cup in South Africa, for an exhibition game. The big fish came the next year: a Lionel Messi-led Argentina side played Venezuela in Kolkata's Salt Lake Stadium, the venue for the U-17 World Cup final.

More recently, La Liga, the Premier League and some of their individual clubs have entered into partnerships with academies, setting up businesses bearing their names, and associations with India in recent years. Official merchandise is now available in the big cities and you will be sure to spot a Manchester United or Barcelona knock-off jersey in almost every kick-about across the country.

This tournament will help showcase India's ability to be a suitable host for future FIFA events; it has already bid for the Under-20 World Cup in 2019 and, if the logistics over the next month go smoothly, clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Liverpool and Juventus could be tempted into organising pre-season tours as they do in Malaysia, Singapore and China.

The good news is that India as a country is showing an increasing appetite for consumption of sport other than cricket, still the clear leader by a fair margin. But there is also a lesson to be drawn from cricket: it has gone from a colonial-era, almost archaic sport into one where the global media rights for the Indian Premier League -- the latest five-year deal fetched the Indian cricket board $2.55 billion -- can compete with the best in football. A sport that was largely dominated in the field and the boardrooms by England and Australia till about two decades ago now earns about 70 percent of its global revenue from India.

The U-17 World Cup broadcast rights in India are with Sony Pictures Network (SPN)* India, who acquired the rights for all FIFA events between 2014 and 2018 - both World Cups included - in 2014. While the 2014 FIFA World Cup broadcast was a big hit, especially with regional language commentary introduced for the first time for a FIFA event to Indian audiences, this U-17 World Cup looks set to match, if not better, the eyeballs for the tournament three years ago, especially with games set to be aired on Sony in Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan and Maldives.

"The growth in Indian sport has been enormous," says Ghouse. "Everybody cites the success of the IPL, and the last broadcast deal is a testament to how valuable it can be. The Pro Kabaddi League has grown to 12 teams and has had a lot of success across demographics."

Hockey, too, has found India to be a profitable market, especially for television audiences, and several of world hockey's top events have been hosted by the country since the men's World Cup in 2010. There have been leagues and tournaments across other global sports like tennis, basketball and badminton; the NBA launched an elite basketball training centre, only the second global academy of the kind after China, in India in May this year and followed it up by flying in Kevin Durant for a two-day meet-and-greet tour.

And there is one huge advantage India has over China - its huge English-speaking population, which is plugged into social media that the state doesn't control.


India join China, Japan, Korea Republic and UAE as Asian nations to have hosted the U-17 World Cup, and all of the other nations have built on the momentum of having hosted a global football event to kick-start their way to the upper echelons of Asian football, with each team having made the World Cup finals at least once.

Can India follow them? The obstacles, the potential pitfalls, are obvious. "The biggest challenge was always going to be the development of infrastructure to the level that is required," says Javier Ceppi, tournament director of the Local Organising Committee (LOC).

"Now that the infrastructure is in place, we can't really say what will be the biggest challenge till the tournament ends, but we are sure there will be some more."

The sceptics wonder about the interest in junior-level football, even if the best international teams are playing. The organisers have done well to keep the tickets hugely affordable, with the prices ranging from INR 40 (about 62 cents) to INR 800 (about 12.5 dollars). They say ticket sales are encouraging but even the cricket World Cup, when staged in India, has had its share of empty stands.

The tournament's listed players include USA's Timothy Weah - son of former Liberian legend and 1995 Ballon d'Or winner George Weah, who was signed by Paris Saint-Germain earlier this year -- and England's Jadon Sancho, whom Borussia Dortmund signed from Manchester City for a reported €7 million on the final day of the summer transfer window this year.

The world's eyes will be on all 24 teams, and given that the focus will be on potential, it will be a level-playing field for a player from Brazil, the most successful team in the fray, against a good performer for India.

A German star will get just as much attention from the world's talent scouts as the top performer for Mali. England, with their U-20 World Cup win earlier this year breaking an international title jinx that had stretched to over half a century, will be followed keenly, as will Spain, who have never won this title and in fact are returning to the finals for the first time since 2009.

"For me, the positives of this U-17 World Cup are that infrastructure has been upgraded. Every host city has more practice pitches, which is a basic requirement for the clubs operating out of that venue," says Ghouse. "Most importantly, it's a great platform for the Indian boys to be playing. We have to be positive about it, and everybody involved in this has to ensure that we keep this going beyond the World Cup. You must look after this team and make sure they can take the step up to perhaps taking India to an Under-20 World Cup soon."

That World Cup might even be played in India. Even five years ago, who would have thought that possible?

There's a lot at stake in this World Cup. To paraphrase an old football quote, it's more than just a game.

*ESPN has a long-term collaboration with Sony Pictures Networks (SPN) offering SONYESPN-branded television channels and digital assets in India and the subcontinent.

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