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India, Set to Host FIFA Under-17 Women’s World Cup, Yet to Stage U-17 Nationals

From fund crunch to accommodating other age-group events, there are many possible reasons for the All India Football Federation’s inability to stage the Under-17 national championships. However, when we consider the many competitions and events staged by the federation, we can't help but question the lack of Intent and planning.
Indian Under 17 women's world cup team

The Under-17 women’s nationals were held for the last time in April 2019. That forces us to question the criteria or process by which the probables for the national team (who are training in Jharkhand under Swedish coach Thomas Dennerby) for the World Cup were selected (representative image).

A football carnival called “Kick Off The Dream” was held in Navi Mumbai last month. The aim was to involve children in football-themed events and bring them the joy of playing the beautiful game. Since India will host the FIFA Under-17 World Cup for women in October, the tournament’s organising committee was actively involved in the carnival.

Later, in a statement, a senior official of the organising committee said: “It is extremely encouraging to see the enthusiasm of every stakeholder involved in conceptualising and executing this launch event, which is the first of many. Ultimately, it is the excitement of the children participating in the carnival which has us very eager for future events.”

The organising committee, which is a part of the All India Football Federation (AIFF), is excited by the enthusiasm of the children and has promised to bring more events like this. Fine. But is the AIFF really going full steam ahead to bring the joy of football among young boys and girls? 

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If it is, then why the AIFF, which is going to host the under-17 women’s World Cup with pomp and gaiety in five months from now, is faltering again and again to stage the under-17 National championship for women? That too when the championship will be held for the first time in three years? Isn’t it the most important event in the calendar year when India is set to host the World Cup in the same age group?

Initially, it was decided the under-17 Women’s Nationals will be held in Assam from the first week of May. All state associations were informed of a tentative date of May 5 for starting the meet. It never materialised. No letter of postponement came from the federation, but another letter on May 5 announced a fresh date of June 15 for starting the tournament in Assam.

Now, there are doubts whether the championship would start on June 15 or may face another postponement at least by a week. Some states have written to the AIFF saying since the Khelo India Youth Games will start in Panchkula in June and girls from their respective states will participate there, it would be difficult to raise teams for the Nationals. Sources said the AIFF is now planning a further deferment to allow the states to get back their players after Khelo India.

“It’s ridiculous and speaks volumes of AIFF’s lack of planning,” said an upset state association official. “Since we are hosting the Under-17 World Cup for women, the focus should have been on the National championship for under-17 girls. This was an excellent opportunity to spot some talented footballers. Now, even if some talented girls are found, where is the time to train them for the big event,” asked the official. 

Some are even questioning the merits of the AIFF’s selection of players for the under-17 World Cup preparatory camp. It was in April 2019 when the Nationals in this age group was held for the last time before Covid-19 pandemic upset all plans. Then, on what basis the probables, who are currently undergoing training in Jharkhand, were picked up? Wasn’t it ideal to stage the National championship earlier so that Swedish coach Thomas Dennerby had a bigger pool of players to choose from?

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Some people within the federation strongly suspect that constraint of funds could be one of the reasons why several annual championships conducted by the AIFF are being delayed often these days. It is now heavily dependent on different state governments to conduct tournaments. Recently the Santosh Trophy in Kerala turned out to be a tremendous success only after the state government provided the financial support. The ongoing Indian Women’s League (IWL) in Bhubaneshwar enjoys the support of the state government in lodging, food, and transport. 

Asked why the under-17 women’s Nationals couldn’t be staged in May, a senior official of the Assam Football Association said: “There were some issues involved. The AIFF requested us to arrange logistic backing from the state government. It couldn’t be done because the chief minister was very busy then. Now that the state government has assured us of support, the girls Nationals will be held in June.”

An AIFF official, however, had a different version to offer. “There were some practical problems in holding the tournament in May. Girls in many states were busy with their examinations. So, we decided to defer it by a month,” he said. 

The critics of the AIFF say the root cause for this financial trouble is completely different. Ever since the sports ministry heavily reduced funding for the AIFF under Annual Calendar for Training and Competition (ACTC), the federation found itself in a tight spot. The ministry, which previously sanctioned Rs. 30 crore under ACTC, has now reduced the grant to Rs. 5 crore, citing lack of performance by the Indian football team in the recent past.

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“Managing the finance has become quite a juggling act these days,” admitted a federation functionary. “The expenditure behind the national teams goes up to eight to 10 crores annually. Previously most of it came from the government. Now the AIFF has to take care of the entire expenses. That’s the reason why the federation now continuously looks for support from state governments.”

A few members believe AIFF president Praful Patel should take the blame for this mess. “It’s an open secret that performance was not exactly the reason behind the government’s decision to slash the ACTC grant heavily. The sports ministry is upset that the AIFF is clearly violating the National Sports Code and showing no intention to change its attitude. The AIFF elections are overdue for 16 months now and Patel is delaying on the pretext of saying he is waiting for the court’s directives. Patel seems least bothered if the AIFF is struggling for funds. All he wants is to secure his chair by hook or crook,” said a member.  

In January this year, India hosted the Asian Women’s championships with lots of fanfare. It ended in disaster for the home team as a majority of Indian players tested positive for Covid-19 and the hosts were forced to withdraw after playing only one match. Patel apparently promised an inquiry, but that was the last time one heard of it. Yet another opportunity has come to showcase the footballing prowess of Indian women on the world stage. It could have been used in a more appropriate manner.

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