There might be just 10 days to go before the start of the U-17 World Cup in India, yet the All India Football Federation (AIFF) is already setting its sights on the future of the team. On Tuesday, AIFF president Praful Patel said the country had made a formal bid to host the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup and expected the current U-17 team to be part of that tournament too. "We have no commitment yet because it has not yet been decided at the level of FIFA but we hope the conduct of this World Cup in India and with the whole FIFA executive committee coming to India, we will be in a position to convince FIFA of India's ability, enthusiasm and commitment to hosting such games," he said. "We certainly feel that that time has come."
India was expected to make a formal bid for the tournament, after having submitted an expression of interest to host the tournament in July. In contrast to the U-17 World Cup, for which the formal bid had been made only a day before the deadline lapsed, the bid for the 2019 World Cup was completed over a month before the 1st November deadline for the same. The FIFA Council is expected to announce the winning bid in the first months of 2018. Despite the AIFF's optimism, there is little certainty of India winning the bid. The previous edition of the tournament was held in South Korea and FIFA is likely to take the tournament to a separate continent.
However, regardless of the success of the 2019 bid, Patel has said the effort and expenditure expended in creating a team for the U-17 World Cup would not be discarded at the end of the tournament. "There have been concerns of what happens to the U-17 World Cup team post their games," he said. "We have already decided to keep the team as one unit and maybe bring in players from other age groups too. We will try to keep the coach with us so we are able to continue this young crop that we have developed into the stars of tomorrow."
The procedure for working with the team would be similar to the Indian Arrows project launched by the AIFF in 2013. Back then the footballing body had formed a team comprising of Indian U-19 players that subsequently competed in the I-League. "We have seen a few of the front line players of the country like Jeje Lalpekhlua who had once played for the Indian Arrows. We would like to keep these players together for a much longer period of time. Of course, it doesn't mean that the players will simply continue to play. The players will be suitably rewarded," said Patel. Indeed the players from the 21-member U-17 team and a few from the U-19 set-up are expected to be signed on long-term contracts of two-to-three years by the AIFF. "Few U-17 or U-19 players get playing time when they play for the I-League or ISL clubs. If they are to improve, they have to get as much exposure as possible," says an AIFF official.
These plans appear to have the backing of U-17 coach Luis Norton de Matos too. "We have to ensure the gains that this team has made are not lost. There is a gap in the experience of the team. Teams like Portugal, Spain and Germany start playing from the time they are six years old. They have come to this tournament with 11 years' experience in competing. There is a programme to continue with this team. Playing every week for points, playing every week for competition will be important," he says.
Indeed, Patel feels the same group of youngsters, selected after a process beginning in 2013, who are competing in next month's World Cup could well be a part of the 2019 tournament too. "If we win the rights to host in two years, we cannot reinvent the wheel once more," he says.
However, there is no certainty of India qualifying for the World Cup if the country doesn't win hosting rights. India will first have to advance from the qualification rounds for the 2018 AFC Championships. In that tournament, comprising the top 16 teams of Asia, India will then have to finish in the top four to make the U-20 World Cup of 2019.