Joy Bhattacharjya, project director for the 2017 Under-17 football World Cup, talks to Ajachi Chakrabarti about how the tournament could be an inflection point for Indian football.
You’ve described the awarding of hosting rights for the 2017 Under-17 World Cup to India as, “It’s a penalty given to us; if we miss it, we miss everything.” How big a deal is this, and what did you mean by that quote?
We look at this as an inflection point for Indian football. We have to use the support from the central and state governments, the recent start of the ISL and FIFA’s strong focus on India to really help transform the game and its image in India. We will probably never get such an opportunity to develop the game.
What are the major challenges your organising committee faces in ensuring this penalty is converted? On what criteria would you measure success?
One major challenge is to implement the tournament to the best international standards while using and training local manpower as much as possible. The second is to use the tournament to build a football movement in the country. Our major criteria for success will be the number of people we touch with the sport over the next 18 months.
It’s unlikely, considering that all the prospective venues are in the country’s football powerhouses, but it would be a shame if World Cup matches were played in half-empty arenas. What are ticket prices going to be like, and could you talk a bit about the publicity campaign you’re planning for the event?
We believe in tickets, because nobody in India respects what they get for free. But the focus is on getting schools, communities and families to the game, making money out of ticketing is definitely not an objective. There are a host of schemes to be announced over the next six months in this regard.
You’ve also said that this tournament will be the most transparent international tournament in India, an assertion that, given the recent history both of sporting events in India and the governing body of the sport, is a very important one. What steps have you taken to ensure this?
Our accounts are under the AIFF which is registered as a charitable institutions and open to RTI. Everything we get from FIFA or the government and how we spend it is on record.
How important is the performance of the India team, in their first ever World Cup finals at any level, to the success of the tournament? What do you make of their preparations?
The team has been training since mid-2014, and will have had the best possible preparation possible. But the tournament is about every participating country, not just India. We need an Indian team who are as prepared as they can possibly be, and prepared to give their all for the country. If that is the case, we will live with the results.
Around the world, football is a working-class sport played by the masses. In India, however, despite the golden age of the 1950s and ’60s, it stopped being popular outside the traditional powerhouses of Bengal, Goa, Kerala and the Northeast—the sport of the masses was hockey, and then cricket. The resurgence of the sport’s popularity has mostly been confined to the moneyed classes who watch European leagues on TV, which is, I think, a major reason we punch so far below our weight as a footballing nation. What needs to be done to expand the social reach of the beautiful game?
We have to kindle interest in Indian football and the Indian national team. Also, [we need] more places where young boys and girls can actually play and apply for selection. The programmes that we are planning to implement will address those specific issues.