In 20 years of living in New Delhi, one of my biggest disappointments has been the lack of football in the capital. It was a fear in the lead up to the FIFA Under 17 World Cup as well, after it was announced that India would play all their games in the city. As Newsclick has covered previously things got off to a very poor start on Day One of the tournament on Oct. 6. But what followed was a story of individuals, and groups, coming together almost without any organisation, to make things both pleasant and enjoyable. For a few days the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, and pockets around it, were transformed into an accessible and safe zone for football fans of all ages, sexes, races and religions to celebrate the exhibition being put on by teams at India’s first World Cup.
On the days when India played the box office outside Gate 15 of the JNS was thronged by groups of young, local boys who did not have the opportunity to buy tickets to the matches. These three boys were delighted at having been given tickets to watch India take on Colombia on Oct. 9. “Now that you have taken our photo you can come and check that we will be-be there at the game,: the eldest of the three said. “Many people have refused us tickets because they think we will try to sell them in black. But we just want a chance to come to the stadium and support our team.” Elsewhere in the area men with bottles of paint roamed the streets offering to paint the flag of your choice on your face for the princely sum of Rs. 50. Many bargained and a few young ladies even got their faces painted for free. At 4S, a dive bar in neighbouring Defence Colony market, football fans took over from the usual clientele of lawyers, journalists and students looking for a night out without paying the usual Delhi prices. All the tables pictured in this image were heading to the game after finishing off a cold pregame beverage or two. Seated by himself (with back to camera) is Samar Narayen who has been to World Cups, Euros and other football events as disparate as the Ukraine, South Africa and Germany. Wearing the dark and light blue striped India jersey is Damyant Singh Khanoria, Marketing and Communications lead for Apple. The crowd in Delhi represented a wide cross-section of society—from school kids to working professionals—all united by the love of the game.
After the debacle on Day One, Delhi pulled up its socks. The school kids, who came to the stadium in the tens of thousands, were polite, well-behaved and many of them had a genuine interest in the sport. For the teams on the pitch, these fans made the tournament. Never had the teams played in front of such large and loud crowds. That Delhi managed to pack over 40,000 on the nights India played, was a huge plus for an under 17 football event. Not even in developed football nations to such large crowds turn out for such age-group events.
The stadium experience left much to desire. However, the organisers did make sure the basics were put in place. There were volunteers positioned at entry/exit points distributing free drinking water, while a group of young men, dressed in bright yellow t-shirts, were tasked with keeping the stadium in line with the much-talked-about Swachh Bharat mission. The boys, who didn’t want to be named because collecting garbage comes with a whole range of social stigma, were happy that their work was being appreciated and that they got to watch bits and pieces of the games as well.
A reflection of the city’s growing football culture was also apparent in the crowd. A large number of young footballers—many representing academies and soccer schools named after the biggest clubs in the world—managed to secure tickets and turned out to support their peers who were representing the country. Minerva Punjab FC, based in Chandigarh, came to the stadium loud and proud. They took over an entire section behind the north goal and cheered relentlessly. They had a motivation—four of the Indian boys on the team represent Minerva Punjab. They are the only academy, apart from the AIFF’s elite academy, that provided players for India’s first World Cup squad. Team owner Ranjit Bajaj and his coaches shepherded there players to the stadium every matchday and made sure they cheered from their teammates Mohammad Shahjahan, Nongdamba Naorem, Anwar Ali and India’s only goalscorer Jaekson Thounaujam.
Also ever-present were the newly anointed fan club the Blue Pilgrims. Formed from fan clubs who normally pledge allegiance to clubs from Kerala, Bengaluru, Mumbai and other parts of the country, the Blue Pilgrims named themselves after their devotion to Indian football. Their plan is to shed club loyalties every time the national teams play and travel to support them. Bengaluru Fc superfan Waseem Ahmed—a key member of the now well-known West Block Blues—was instrumental in getting the groups together and organising some of the fun activities.
The VIP section of the JNS may be the worst place in the entire stadium from which to watch a football game. But it was surprisingly full for the duration of the games in Delhi. There were diplomats from the visiting nations as well as scouts, administrators, former players, coaches and members of the contingents from the nations based in the capital—the US, Colombia and Ghana. Newly appointed sports minister Rajyavardhan Rathore was a constant fixture in the box along with AIFF president Praful Patel. But it was a particular joy to see IM Vijayan make the trip to the ground for all of India’s games. Considered—by an overwhelming majority—the best footballer India has ever produced, Vijayan was looking back to match fitness after having recently rejoined duty with the Kerala police.
When we spoke to Joy Bhattacharjya, tournament director for the World Cup in India, he told us he was surprised the local organising committee was up and running three years before the tournament was to begin. His surprised vanished as soon as he saw the list of requirements to host a FIFA event. Javier Ceppi, his partner in crime, has plenty of experience at organising such events, but never in India. It is safe to say he has greyed a little. The FIFA Under 17 World Cup India 2017 is not a big budget event. India did not need to construct new stadia or create any major infrastructure for the tournament to be held. That said, the logistical difficulties of hosting a world cup—with 24 teams based in six cities across the length and breadth of this great country—are nothing to be scoffed at. There is still a week to go before we can safely say the tournament went off well, but it is not too early congratulate Bhattacharjya and Ceppi on putting together a world-class event without the kind of negative headlines we have become accustomed to. In putting together their team, the duo has also managed to create a workforce that consists largely of young, talented men and women. This team of 3000 plus has gained great experience through the hosting of this tournament in India—from groundsmen to cleaning staff, operations and logistics, media coordinators, translators and liaison personnel and a host of other work areas. They are now trained and experienced enough to not only take these ideas to local events but also to travel to other parts of the continent as skilled football professionals.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author's personal views, and do not necessarily represent the views of Newsclick.