India will kick start participation in their biggest footballing tournament today as they face USA in the first group stage game at the Jawaharlal Stadium in New Delhi, debuting in the FIFA U-17 World Cup.
This is India’s first appearance in any form of football world cup. India have been drawn in Group A alongside USA, Ghana and Colombia. The hosts would have been the weakest team in any odd group and Indian U-17 head coach Luis Norton de Matos knows that. Even though India qualify automatically as hosts, the All India Football Federation have invested more than INR15 crore on the team, sending them to four continents, 18 countries to play more than 100 matches in the last three years, the Indian Express reported.
“It is difficult to build a strong team in seven months but we have done what we can in this short time. There is a gap between India and the other teams, say from Europe and South America,” said De Matos. “So, I don’t think much about the results and chances but I know my players will give their best. That is what they can do.”
USA head coach John Hackworth said, “We’ve played India once before, we were successful against them. But it wasn’t in the opening game of the World Cup, it wasn’t them hosting a World Cup. My feeling is that, and from the information I’ve heard, there’s going to be a very loud crowd. They (India) are incredibly athletic and hard-working team. We are going to have to beat the host country in the opening game and that is a difficult challenge.”
On the eve of India's first match, the capital crowd was yet to warm up to the mega-football event. While FIFA remained reluctant to release a final figure on a number of tickets sold, it's understood that most tickets remained unsold despite being priced at discounted rates of INR150 for Category 3 seats in North, South and East stands and INR300 for Category 2 seats in the West stands on match days. Category 1tickets are priced at INR600 in West stand and Category 4 at INR60 both in North and South stands on match days.
The Government of India, along with FIFA Local Organising Committee (LoC), has planned to bring 27,000 schoolchildren to the stadium for the match.
"The LOC has already distributed 27,000 tickets in 500 schools around Delhi and NCR. We will provide them with to-and-fro transport too. We are providing an opportunity to the schoolchildren to see their heroes in live action," an LOC spokesperson told Times of India yesterday.
While the fans in Kochi, Kolkata and Navi Mumbai are flooding the practice venues to watch the future stars train, the Indian team has hardly witnessed any support in the capital apart from the host association bringing in schoolchildren for their encouragement. The picture isn't any different in the training sessions of Ghana, US and Colombia, where a handful of media personnel and volunteers were the only spectators over the last few days.
An LOC member, on conditions of anonymity, said that the government had to bring in schoolchildren to save their blushes. "Initially, the plan was to bring around 15,000-16,000 kids. But when we realised that tickets sales were slow, we had to increase the number. The only tickets which are completely sold out are the online ones. However, that is a very nominal percentage of around 10,000," the member said.