Will FIFA U-17 World Cup bring football fever to India?
The gaze of football aficionados worldwide has turned toward India as the country hosts its most high-profile football tournament ever. What does it mean for the future of the sport in this potentially lucrative market?
It may seem like a match made in heaven - football, the world's most beloved sport, and India, the world's second most populous country. But actually, the FIFA Under-17 World Cup, kicking off in New Delhi and Mumbai on Friday, marks the first time India is hosting or participating in a major FIFA tournament.
Among Indian football fans, excitement levels are understandably high. For 87 years they've been excluded from a global ritual - where fans either bask in the glory or wallow in the disappointment of their national team's triumphs and failures at FIFA World Cups.
Those days are finally over, even if it is just an Under-17 World Cup.
The significance of the occasion is not lost on the powers that be - Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who can be found on much of the tournament's promotional material, is attending India's opening match against the United States in New Delhi tonight.
And Indian football administrators are hoping to make the most of the moment by using the tournament as an opportunity to grow interest in the game. Within the past two weeks, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has announced it is setting up a National Center of Excellence to develop young talent, and that it has submitted a bid for India to host the 2019 Under-20 World Cup.
Winning the rights to another major tournament so soon after the country's first would of course be a major boon, especially for the current crop of young players about to get international exposure on home soil this month. All of this comes at a time when the men's senior international team is having one of its most successful runs in recent memory, and is now ranked inside FIFA's top 100.
A long way to go
Still, only the biggest optimists within Indian footballing circles would say they expect these developments to change the sport's local fortunes overnight, both in terms of popularity and performance. Although football in India does have a dedicated fan base, it remains a cricket-mad country, making it difficult for other sports to gain mainstream acceptance.
That organizers felt the need to feature Sachin Tendulkar - widely regarded as India's greatest ever cricketer - in the U-17 World Cup's official anthem, is telling. And even though ticket sales have been good in some of the World Cup's host cities, they've been particularly bad in New Delhi, the capital, where India will play all its group matches.
According to a report published by the Times of India, organizers fear a poor turnout for tonight's opening matches, and are planning to bus in 27,000 school children to salvage the situation.
Some observers worry that the overall issues Indian football administrators face in attracting fans are further compounded by the fact that the Under-17 World Cup is essentially a youth tournament.
"Indian papers are going overboard with coverage, but the lack of ticket sales clearly shows that the public in general is not bothered about junior football. There is no connect as it's a tournament of unknown [players]," Sukhwant Basra, a well-known Indian sports journalist and former National Sports Editor of the Hindustan Times, told DW.
Even though ticket sales have been good in some of the World Cup's host cities, they've been particularly bad in New Delhi
Home team unlikely to shine
A good run by the Indian team at this month's World Cup would likely get more fans on board, but the chances of that are slim. Expectations are not high for the relatively inexperienced hosts, whose group also features two-time champions Ghana and Colombia, in addition to the United States. Even Team India's coach, former Portuguese player Luis Norton de Matos, has rated his squad's chances of winning a group match as low as five percent.
"It is difficult to build a strong team in seven months but we have done what we can in this short time. There is a gap between India and the other teams, say from Europe and South America," he told reporters last week.
A recent report by a local sports website The Field only further exposed that gap, showing that only five members of the Indian squad belong to professional football clubs. The Field found this to be in startling contrast to most of the other teams at the tournament, some of which have players on the lists of major European clubs like RB Leipzig, Real Madrid and Chelsea.
Organizers to be tested
As important as the performance of the host nation on the field, however, will be the abilities its organizers show off the field, in terms of their readiness to stage a World Cup. Criticisms of their abilities to attract fans notwithstanding, organizers have not received as much bad press ahead of the event as their counterparts did before India's last major sporting extravaganza - the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
All of the World Cup's venues have undergone significant renovations to meet FIFA standards. And the work done on the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata in particular, which will host the final on October 28, has received glowing reviews.
But like all good sports stories, the tournament's plot is unscripted, and organizers will be tested by potential challenges that may arise. A legal battle in recent weeks between organizers and shop owners at one of the tournament's six stadiums cast major doubts over whether the southern city of Kochi would be able to host its eight allotted matches. Though the issue seems to have been settled, the drama did not exactly serve as a good omen for a logistically smooth tournament.
A certain degree of controversy also surrounds the tournament after defending champions Nigeria were found to have players over the age of 17 in their squad during the qualifying campaign. FIFA is doing all it can to try and prevent similar acts of fraud, and are even employing the use of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) equipment to scan the wrists of players to detect their age. One Indian player was reportedly dropped from the team late last month after such a test, and Indian authorities will be hoping for no bigger wave of controversy.
But the biggest threat for the tournament to contend with could be air quality, particularly in New Delhi. The last match to be played in the capital is on October 16, perhaps unsurprisingly just days before the major Hindu festival, Diwali. Celebrations in Delhi usually involve large amounts of fireworks, which tend to pollute the air across the city.
Last year's post-Diwali smog was especially toxic, and ensuring there are no matches in New Delhi after this year's festival is probably a wise move by tournament organizers. To play a FIFA World Cup in the middle of anything similar to last year's post-Diwali conditions would no doubt be a public relations disaster for India.
Still, avoiding Diwali does not necessarily mean organizers are out of the woods. Last year's crisis was not just due to fireworks, but actually in large part because of farmers in neighboring states burning their unused crops before the beginning of winter. Similar crop-burning activities have begun in recent days, and air quality in New Delhi has already been negatively impacted. Though the worst of it will likely come later after the capital's World Cup matches, officials have been concerned about the issue for a while.
The organizers of the most high-profile football tournament to have ever taken place in India will have to deal with all these issues and others over the next three weeks. Although the challenges are immense, there are also opportunities. Whether the tournament gets major attention in India or not, the eyes of the footballing world are clearly on India. And how organizers deal with the twists and turns that may await will likely end up having a major impact on the future of Indian football on the global stage.