One tournament, a billion dreams

U-17 World Cup India football team

Circa 5 December 2013. The FIFA executive meeting was being held in Salvador, Brazil, where the host of the 2017 U-17 World Cup would be decided.

Back in India, the football scene was pretty much mundane. The I-League was the only real competition and lacked the impetus to take football to the next level. Things were looking up though, with the Indian Super League (ISL), after a couple years of postponement, was set to be launched the following year.

It was late in the evening that fifth day of December, when FIFA announced that India beat Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Ireland to win the right to host the U-17 tourney. It would be the first FIFA event to be held on Indian soil.

India captain Sunil Chhetri was fast asleep. His team, Bengaluru FC, were scheduled to take on Churchill Brothers the following day in their I-League clash. Reporters kept pestering his manager for quotes about India winning the bid, and he had no option but to wake up the skipper. A half-sleepy Chettri then said, off the record of course, “I should be sleeping right now. Nobody disturbs me when I’m gone to sleep a day before a match. But I’ll gladly make an exception this time. This is the best news I’ve ever woken up to. I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep properly now.” On the record, Chettri, India’s all-time leading goal-scorer said, “Winning the right to host the U-17 World Cup is India’s biggest achievement so far. This tournament is going to act as a catalyst in boosting Indian football. There couldn’t be a single happier moment.”

With less than 90 days to go for the tournament which is going to be held from October 6-28, India has seen a sort of resurgence in football. The national team has risen to 96 in the FIFA rankings and are on an eight-match unbeaten run. They recently beat Kyrgyz Republic 1-0 in the AFC Asian Cup qualifier and are looking steady as ever. The ISL has been extended to a 10-team five-month AFC-certified league. The I-League is in shambles, but that’s a story for another time.

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