Duerden: U-17 World Cup only the start for Indian football

John Duerden John Duerden

FOX Sports Asia columnist John Duerden believes hosting the FIFA Under-17 World Cup could be a pivotal moment in what is shaping as an important few months for the rise of football in India.

The FIFA Under-17 World Cup starts in India this week. The hope, in the halls of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and world governing body FIFA alike, is that – in decades to come when the country is a football superpower – then this tournament will be hailed as a turning point.

Let’s see. But at the moment, it is right that there is optimism about Indian football. This youth meet is not the biggest event in the football calendar but is a major step in the right direction. For India, it is about hosting a 24-team international tournament at all ends of the giant country.

It will give fans and viewers a glimpse of the best young talent in the world and hopefully act as inspiration to a generation of Indian youngsters. If the hosts can have a decent showing and get out of their group containing Ghana, Colombia and the United States, then that will be a major bonus. The squad has been together for over two years, training and playing. Preparations have been pretty good. It is not a case of now or never for Indian football but now would be pretty good.

It is also about showing that the beauty that makes up the beautiful game takes work off the pitch. Nothing long-term or sustainable can happen without the right infrastructure in place. Hosting World Cups helps to make that happen and it attracts corporate interest too and that is a major plus.

India may not lack as much football passion as is generally thought but it does lack decent training facilities. The corporate sector likes things such as World Cups and more private money coming into the game can only help the push to improve the nation’s football infrastructure.

If this tournament goes well then there will be more interest and support. The next step will be hosting the Under-20 event. Then could come the Asian Cup, the Women’s World Cup and, at some point in the very distant future, the really big one.

FIFA would like that very much. Former boss Sepp Blatter was instrumental in ensuring the tournament came to the sub-continent and was a regular visitor. It is easy to see why. If a country with over a billion people, a significant proportion of which love cricket, can start loving football, then the potential is clear. We are talking hundreds of millions of new converts.

So the U-17 tournament is a big deal, on and off the pitch. If the nation can get excited, helped by the national team, then there will be some very happy people in New Delhi, as well as Zurich. Neutrals should be rooting for India over the next few days and – hopefully – weeks.

The senior national team also has a major part to play and, here, all is looking very good. India are on course to qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup. They made it in 2011 but that was due to winning the 2010 AFC Challenge Cup, a tournament reserved for the continent’s smaller football nations. Qualifying the conventional way would be a bigger achievement.

With three games down and three to go, India sits six points clear at the top and, if other results go their way, Stephen Constantine’s men could clinch a place in October’s game with Macau.

That former Portuguese colony is a genuine minnow and the two qualification spots were always going to be between India, Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan.

The opening game was a really tough one: in Yangon. Myanmar has been making strides in football. The U-20 team qualified for the 2015 U-20 World Cup. That crop of young talent is proving to be a solid foundation with forward Aung Thu one of the stars of Asian football. The senior team deservedly knocked Malaysia out of the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup, Southeast Asia’s biennial tournament. They also gave Thailand, a team in the final 12 of Asian qualification for the 2018 World Cup, a real test in the semi-final.

India captain Sunil Chhetri at July’s draw in Mumbai.

With big crowds turning out in the capital, the expectation was that Myanmar would defeat India and take a major step towards United Arab Emirates 2018. Yet, despite having plenty of chances and pressure, the hosts could not find a way through. India stood firm and well-organised and grabbed a goal in the dying minutes. It was a resilient and professional performance – a far cry from India of the past.

That was built on with two more wins and two more clean sheets. The Blue Tigers are sitting pretty. To put it in cricket terms, for India to miss out on the 2019 Asian Cup would take a collapse almost as horrific as THAT horror display against Australia in Pune earlier this year.

All in all, with the extended Indian Super League starting in November, the next few weeks are crucial for Indian football. If all goes well, then we could be witnessing the start of a new dawn.