Kerala Hosting FIFA U-17 World Cup: Moment Of Proud For India

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KOCHI: In 2012, then Fifa president Sepp Blatter called India the 'sleeping giant' of world football. As much as it was a goodwill gesture, it made sense in deeper introspection. The country with the second largest population ought to do better in the world's most popular game. So it is quite natural that when the wake-up call comes, first it hits Kerala, a state known for its footballing tradition. The Indian Super League (ISL) has already rejuvenated the passion for football here and Kochi hosting the U-17 World Cup offers a chance to build on the momentum.

India has hosted Cricket World Cups, Asian Games and Commonwealth Games before. However, Kerala has always been cheering from the periphery. The popularity of football has brought to Kerala a chance to host a world sporting extravaganza for the first time and with it a fast ticket to re-establish itself as a premier football hub in the country.

For far too long, Kerala rested on their laurels. It was easy to dwell on the nostalgia of bygone eras than to put up systems in place to nurture talent and catch up with the fast-changing world of professional sport of the 21st century. Then came the ISL in 2014, which through Kerala Blasters has captured the imagination of the football-starved youth of the state, a fact undisputed by even those who loathe the blatant corporate hegemony that comes with the league. "Years ago, there were several football tournaments in every nook and corner of the state. Over time, these tournaments vanished and the people here didn't have many opportunities to watch the game. But I would say the ISL has brought back the golden days of Kerala football to an extent and now this U-17 World Cup gives the young generation the opportunity to see world-class football in front of their eyes and it will only help them develop their own game and skills," says former Kerala captain Victor Manjila.

The scene is slowly changing in grassroots development as well with more and more academies coming up and qualified coaches entering the fray. In a rough estimate, there are over 400 academies across Kerala, admittedly functioning at varying levels of efficiency. "The education of coaches was one thing we lagged behind. But now more coaches are getting pro-licences. Coming to the kids, if we talk about players like us, we first put on the boot at the age of 15 or 16, now children start playing at the age of seven or eight. Parents are willing to bring kids to the academies for training and as Fifa envisages maximum participation is the way to grow the game," says Ebin Rose, former Kerala player and now the coach of Kovalam FC.


It becomes clear that football is eating up into cricket's space as a community sport as parents take time and effort to nurture their apparent prodigies. The U-17 World Cup will only hasten the shift of perception from football as a poor man's game, according to VA Narayana Menon, who has coached multiple junior India teams. "The World Cup will boost society's acceptability, which is very important for a game. Earlier football was played by children of low-income families. Now even upper-middle class and highly affluent families encourage their kids to play," says Menon citing the large influx of entrants in football schools across the state and he believes Kerala can replicate the success story of north-eastern states.

 Even when Indian football lagged behind, the chatter on social media never subsided as tech-savvy youngsters brought up on a staple diet of European football debated the future of the game in the country fervently and often Keralites led the discussions. "The youth is now looking inward and the main reason is social media. With the ISL, we saw a proliferation of Facebook pages, Twitter handles and discussion boards. The World Cup will see a heightened participation on the web and it's a good thing for the development of the game," said Unni Paravannur, who runs the popular news portal Football News India.
Come October, the sold-out stands and frenzied media coverage may help in planting the football bug in a child. But to take it further, it needs vision and the sporting infrastructure the World Cup delivers should serve the future stars in the right way and help build a sports culture. As Menon puts it an eloquent quote which he attributes to M Robson, former principal of LNCPE, Gwalior. "When a society produces more playgrounds, it prepares a healthy society. When a society produces more medical staff and hospitals, it prepares for a sick society."

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