On cue, volunteers rushed onto the pitch of the DY Patil Stadium, carrying with them the parts that would soon become a stage. In a few minutes, with the Spanish team dancing and celebrating on the sidelines, the platform was set for the final award ceremony of the Fifa U17 Women’s World Cup.
Like clockwork, jets of golden confetti covered the turf as Spain’s captain Marina Artero and Nina Pou lifted their country’s second World Cup trophy at this level – the first team to successfully defend the title.
It marked the end of a remarkable few weeks of football. And it proved what was already a certainty – that India indeed can be a good host for a youth football World Cup. They did it before, when the men’s U17 teams descended upon the country in 2017, and that they did it again at the 2022 U-17 Women’s World cup.
Yet as the dust settles, and the confetti is cleared, and the DY Patil Stadium is transformed back into the cricket venue it was originally designed to be, a nagging thought will resurface. Sure, India can host an event of this stature, but the country is far from being competitive in such a competition.
India competed in a Fifa World Cup, at any level, for the second time. And just as it was in 2017, it was by virtue of being hosts. Unlike the last time though, when a junior men’s team had been assembled years in advance, had been put together in a structured camp that involved several exposure tours abroad, the women’s team was only brought together barely six months before their first match, and left to fend off the likes of powerhouses Brazil, the United States and debutants Morocco.
Over the three group games, the Indian team managed three shots on target – not scoring once – in eight attempts, and conceded 16 goals.
However, by no means was this a failure by the 21 teenagers. The blame resides solely on the shoulders the All India Football Federation, a body who, right from the start, lacked the foresight to create any semblance of a sound structure to develop a female footballer in the country.
To put things into perspective, Indian Women’s League, which is the top tier senior competition for women in the country – an event that is, and should, be something all youngsters in the country aspire to play in – lasted over a month for just the first time in the five-year history. For the remaining 11 months, the players are left to their own devices.
It’s into such a setting that the AIFF had submitted a bid to Fifa to host the competition – which was approved in 2019. Granted the event was originally expected to take place in 2020 and had been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet the time extensions did not provide the national body any motivation to at least try to lay the foundation of a more robust system.
A look at other teams
And coming up against a host with such vast shortcomings were the best in the world.
Spain is one of the countries in the world where the women’s team have the same pay as the men. Many of the famous La Liga clubs have their own women’s team – FC Barcelona’s famous La Masia academy even threw open its doors to women last year. And their star striker from the U17 team, Carla Camacho made her senior Real Madrid debut last year.
Fourth placed Germany, too, have several Bundesliga clubs with their own women’s team.
“We have two leagues (divisions for women). Most of the girls (in the U-17 team) play in the second league,” said Germany’s assistant coach Melanie Behringer to Scroll.in after their quarterfinal match.
Behringer is a former Bayern Munich player herself. She won the Fifa U19 Women’s World Cup with her national team in 2004, then with the senior side won the European Championships in 2009 and 2013, an Olympic bronze and gold in Beijing 2008 and Rio 2016 respectively, and the 2007 Fifa World Cup.
“A few of them also play with the boys on the weekend. That’s important for us too because it helps with the experience, speed and physicality. Now we’ve got quite a few players who can play in the first division, maybe next year.”
Similar to Germany, Brazil has a strong scouting program with a firm trust on individual clubs’ development system.
“Brazil plays in a few championships (at the U17 level). We are in contact with the clubs and discussions are always on to see who is the best players,” explained their U17 national coach Simone – a silver medallist with Brazil at the 2007 World Cup and 2008 Olympics – to this publication.
“Then we see the games after that and choose the best to come for the World Cup.”
In the United States meanwhile, a country that has not yet won an U17 Women’s World Cup but has won four of the eight senior editions, the junior platform is a springboard to continue the dominance at the highest level.
“We are U17, we try to teach them what is the style of play for US soccer and the objective for this is that one day they will play with the senior national team,” USA’s head coach Natalia Astrain said in the mixed zone after their quarterfinal loss. “This is the first step. And we prefer, honestly, to lose this game but playing this way rather than win but playing in a style not known to us.”
“We have a department - the talent identification - in the federation where people are working specifically to scout the players. Additionally, the coaches are travelling and watching games. The US, as a country is huge, but we have a good department to scout the players.”
Meanwhile the eventual finalists Colombia have a bonafide future star in their midst. Linda Caicedo, their captain, started playing professionally as a 14-year-old, and is currently a part of the U17, U20 and senior team. She even helped the senior side finish as runners-up at the Copa America Feminina in July this year.
Along with Caicedo, four more players from Colombia’s U20 team were competing at the U17 World Cup.
There is a lot that goes into hosting an event, and an even greater degree of intent and investment required to compete at these events.
Fifa President Gianni Infantino, in his current visit to India, repeated a phrase that has now become rather cliché: That India is a sleeping giant of football.
At this edition of the U17 World Cup, 21 teenagers from India were thrown into the deep-end without any preparation. They were sacrificed for the federation’s insistence on a top-down approach towards growing football in the country – participate in a World Cup (as hosts) and then focus on trying to build a structure to create a team that can actually compete at such an event.
Now the onus is on that same federation, with a recently elected new president at its helm, to make sure these 21 players who were thrown into the deep-end in October will see a better pathway for upcoming players going ahead.