FIFA President Sepp Blatter called India a “sleeping giant” when he announced that they would host the under 17 World Cup in 2017, and the hard work has already started to try and identify players who live up to that billing.
Most football fans will tell you that India is the only nation to arrive at a World Cup Finals and never play a game. They arrived in Sweden in 1958 only to be told that it was compulsory to wear boots, so they boarded the plane home and the game has never reached the same heights since. Just two years before India had defeated Australia 4-2 at the Melbourne Olympics before losing to Yugoslavia in the semi finals and then Bulgaria in the play off for a bronze medal.
The issue of footwear had been raised at the Olympics prior to the game with Australia but the then President of FIFA Sir Stanley Rous respected their decision either way, and interestingly the Indians decided to wear boots. The game was not without controversy as the Indonesian referee disallowed two goals and as a result of Bob Bignall the Australian captain being unable to get an intelligible explanation. At that point it was not a FIFA requirement that all match officials had to speak English.
India now faces the task of trying to identify talented youngsters and develop them while at the same time giving them international exposure. To make that task harder the country does not currently have any national youth tournaments and very few states organise any.
One man charged with the task of trying to achieve these goals if the former Technical Director of Football in Australia Dutchman Rob Baan who is working in a similar role in India alongside Scott O’Donell who is the technical director of Academies in India.
Baan is looking to introduce more competitions in India at school, state and academy levels. He is planning a 12 team pre world cup tournament in which Australia will participate in 2016, as a dress rehearsal, and which will also feature two teams from Asia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East and South America.
In addition to this he is planning plenty of football for these youngsters to try and bring them up to a competitive level. Baan is aiming for 40 international matches a year, and three trips abroad within that year, with Europe, Africa, South America and the Middle East his desired locations.
This tournament is not just about hosting a top event, but also to perform more than adequately. This goal may result in the talked about and previously postponed IMG-R Super League be up and running by the end of the year. This league will be created along the lines of the IPL cricket competition and recently completed Hockey India League. Each Franchise will be allowed ten overseas players and the rest of the squad will be made up of local players. There are moves afoot to try and entice some of the biggest names in World Football to come and play for 5-6 weeks to give the league profile and attract sponsorship.
In three years time one group of youngsters will be privileged to represent India as the host nation in the Under 17 World Cup, but the goal being set is greater than that. It is hoped that the core of this team will help India qualify for the 2022 World Cup. Having not qualified since 1958 and then never having played they have the potential to carve their names in the history books. It will be an interesting journey to see if the giant has indeed awoken.