On July 1, 2017, the FIFA media office sent out a press release. It informed us that the All India Football Federation (the body that runs football in the country) had put in a request to shift India’s three group stage matches to New Delhi. The request had been granted following “fruitful discussions between the Local Organising Committee (LOC) and the local government.” The release goes on to quote Jaime Yarza, FIFA’s head of tournaments,“Attendance, especially in the venue where the home team plays its matches, is one of the priorities of the FIFA U-17 World Cup India 2017, crucial to achieving the purpose of better positioning football in the country, so the government’s commitment in this regard is highly appreciated.”
Those of us familiar with Delhi, the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, and the crowds that usually attend football matches in the city, was immediately sceptical. Firstly, ever since the AIFF decided to switch loyalties from the Ambedkar Stadium, on the edge of the walled city, to the bigger venue that hosted the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, there has not been a single sold-out game in the city. So the argument that the shift to Delhi was to ensure greater spectator involvement was immediately exposed as a falsification.
The JLN is a picturesque venue that is ideal for hosting a multi-discipline event. For football, quite simply, it sucks. The massive athletics track around what is being used as the pitch puts fans at a considerable distance from the action. So, even though the views from the upper stands are unrestricted, fans do not feel part of the action in the same way they would at football-specific stadiums. Regulars already know this. Whether it was a visiting Bayern Munich side that came to play a friendly with the national team or the Indian Super League, the south-Delhi crowd is sparse and relatively silent. The exception is when there is a television camera in the vicinity.
Very soon, though, the real reason behind the shift was revealed. Having the games in Delhi would make it easier for India’s Pratham Sevak, Narendra Modi, to attend the country’s first match in any FIFA World Cup. And this, again quite simply, is what screwed it all up.
VIP security personnels preparing the stands for PM Modi's arrival
Here is why. Firstly, if there is one thing the local organising committee would have been sure of, it is that the stadium would never fill up, by itself, for the opening game. This, as a rule, is unacceptable for an event being attended by the prime minister. To discredit his rockstar, man-of-the-people, filler of Madison Square Garden image at a tournament organised by fellow Indians and with the help of the government? This would not be blasphemy; it would be suicide. To prevent this 27,000 tickets were distributed, last minute, to government schools in and around the capital. Busloads of students were shipped in to ensure that the TV cameras would capture a munificent Modi waving to throngs of patriotic Indians all dressed in sky blue. On the day of the game, I walked all around the stadium’s second level concourse. The most immediate realisation was that girls were not part of this plan at all. Or if they were, they remained separate from Modi’s Blue Shirts.
School kids who were given free tickets and were forced to come fighting over food and water
Secondly, the organisers were woefully unprepared. Even signages had barely been updated since the CWG seven years ago. Perhaps they were expecting half the crowd that eventually turned up, but even a basic requirement like drinking water was in short supply. The videos and photos I took on the day, that are embedded with this report, appear more like scenes from the site of a humanitarian disaster than an attempt to feed a few thousand well-fed Delhi kids. Fans, like these from Bengaluru spent hours on the ground without a drop of water to drink. They finally chanced on a kind volunteer safeguarding a quarter of a 20-litre water jar and attacked it in the manner that only the thirsty can. It was the absolute antithesis to the idea of a “celebration of football” that had been peddled in the public domain.
Some of the images here will also show, quite clearly, the reality behind some much-talked-about government initiatives—Swachh Bharat and other education programmes. The behaviour of these groups of rampaging boys was deplorable, for the most part. While some teacher and students tried to maintain some form of order, the vast majority ran amok, pushing and shoving those in their paths and leaving a trail of garbage in their wake.
Garbage strewn across the stadium
Most vitally this latest PR attempt on the part of Modi, and his coterie of sycophants that now seems to extend to football, was a slap in the face of the eleven boys who took the field on the day. It was touted as their date with history. But a situation was created that was far from ideal for them to do it any justice. For the first 25 or so minutes on Oct. 6, Team India played as though football were not even their sport. It was expected that they would be nervous and tentative. The overhyped opening ceremonies—for the PM to be present there had to also be dozens of other “suitable” invitees including many of the footballers these kids have grown up idolising—piled on the pressure and made everything just a little bit worse. The AIFF should have ensured that India’s debut was as calm and quiet as possible and the players had as little as possible to be distracted by. Instead, led undoubtedly by their president Praful Patel, they did the exact opposite.
The stand above PM Modi's seat was kept empty throughout the game
If Modi came to encourage football, why were the stands above where he was sitting left empty even though they were the best seats in the house that the paying public could buy? I have been to the finals of the Champions League, the European Championships and the World Cup. At all these events there are celebrities, world leaders and politicians who face security threats. In Brazil, in 2014, if Dilma Rousseff’s security detail had blocked off an entire stand at the Maracana, her government would have been toppled on the spot. Somehow, for Mr Modi, the rules are different. Finally came the ultimate act of brazenness. After hanging around for 30-40 minutes of pre-game photo opportunities, the PM left. In all the support he wants to extend to football, and sport in general, he did not even have the decency to watch one half of football. Not even on the day when India made her World Cup debut.
Since so many school students were given free tickets, most of them had to leave before the game could end since it was getting late
In moving India’s games to Delhi the AIFF has made a mistake that impacts no one more than its own players. The buck will, no doubt, be passed between the federation and the government. It should rest with them both, in equal measure. Delhi, for its part, did not disappoint. As a city, we put our worst foot forward on Day One of the tournament. Hopefully, and particularly if the pratham sevak stays away, on the other two occasions we will prove we are better.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author's personal views, and do not necessarily represent the views of Newsclick.