5 December 2013 was a huge day for Indian football, as governing body FIFA announced that the South Asian country would host the FIFA U17 World Cup.
Their winning bid meant that India would be taking part in one of FIFA’s prestigious World Cup tournaments for the first time in their history. No India side of any age group has ever managed to make the cut.
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The decision to hand India the tournament certainly raised concerns. Surely a team with better footballing infrastructure in place, or a team capable of competing at this level, would provide better hosting conditions?
And yet, India has excelled in the role. In fact, they have put on one of the best FIFA U17 World Cup tournaments that the sport has ever seen.
While silky skills and rough tackles are an added bonus, goals are ultimately what football fans want to see. India has provided plenty of goals this month.
On average, the 2017 U17 World Cup has provided 3.4 goals per game. In comparison, the 2015 tournament in Chile provided an average of 2.9 per game.
This won’t be the best tournament for its goals per game ratio (Egypt 1997 and Finland 2003 did better, although with less games played). However, it will top the list for the number of goals scored. In total, 170 goals have been scored in 50 matches. The current record stands at 172, but with two games left to play, India will inevitably come out on top, even if they did only contribute one of those goals.
The India team struggled on the pitch. They crashed out at the group stage, having failed to win a single point. However, while the players were unable to put on a show, the Indian football fans in attendance made up for it.
FIFA U17 World Cup set to break attendance record
Despite India’s unsurprisingly short spell in the tournament, interest among fans has remained high. This is the nation’s first international tournament and it could be a long while before India gets to host another. For much of the population, this month offered a rare or possible even an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see some of the brightest footballing prospects in action.
On average, each game has attracted a crowd of 24,480 spectators. For a youth tournament, that number is staggeringly high.
Some games have proved incredibly popular. Kolkata’s Salt Lake Stadium, the largest stadium in India, has consistently attracted closer to 50,000 during each of the nine games that it has hosted so far.
Likewise, 37,487 fans turned up to Mumbai’s DY Patil Stadium for the tournament’s second semi-final clash. That took the 2017 U17 World Cup overall attendance to 1,224,027.
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As a result, India is now just 6,949 tickets away from matching the record set by China at the inaugural U17 World Cup back in 1985.
Given that both the final and the third place playoff are to be held at the Salt Lake Stadium, it is all but guaranteed that the record will be broken this weekend.
Putting Russia 2018 to shame
Indian football fans proved just how high interest in the event is earlier this week when the semi-final clash between England and Brazil was relocated from Guwahati to Kolkata due to torrential rain.
Needing to fill the Salt Lake Stadium at short notice, 66,000 tickets were put on sale via the FIFA ticketing website.
Clearly underestimating the interest of India’s football community, the website was quickly brought down due to the sheer number of fans attempting to get their hands on a last-minute ticket.
According to reports, more than 1m fans attempted to purchase tickets on Tuesday, 24 October. Those in the digital queue reported as many as 100,000 people in front of them. Many others were unable to connect to the site at all.
In comparison, FIFA reported earlier this month that a total of 3.5m ticket requests have been made for the 2018 World Cup in the first phase of sales. This figure is split between the 64 matches set to be played in Russia next year, rather than a single match. Likewise, the request process was open from 14 September to 12 October, providing a much longer window for fans to apply.
Of course, the attendance figures for the 2018 World Cup will trump India’s youth tournament. The tournament has attracted more than 3m fans on every occasion since the 2006 tournament is Germany. It will likely hit that target again next year.
However, India has proved here that it is more than capable of hosting a major tournament and putting on a show. Should the main spectacle ever roll in to town, we would expect India to break the attendance record set by Brazil back in 2014 if the U17 World Cup statistics are anything to go by.
Not only India will be watching this weekend
While Indian spectators will make up the vast majority of the 66,000 fans packed in to the Salt Lake Stadium on Saturday, they won’t be the only ones watching the action unfold.
Spanish fans are used to seeing their national teams achieve success. Their senior side dominated world football between 2008 and 2014, winning the 2010 World Cup and back-to-back European Championship tournaments. Likewise, their U17 side claimed the UEFA U17 Championship earlier this year for the ninth time. Saturday will be their fourth U17 World Cup final. For them, this will be just another night as they inevitably progress towards the top of the football pyramid.
However, for England fans, such successes are new.
The Under-20s team won the FIFA U20 World Cup back in June. Prior to that, England had failed to win a major international tournament since their historic victory at the 1966 World Cup.
The U16s have won the European Championship in recent years. However, this is their best ever showing at the U17 World Cup, regardless of whether they overcome Spain on Saturday. As a result, interest is likely to be high among fans, as England finally starts to perform on the international stage.
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The stage is set for the U17 World Cup final following Spain’s 3-1 victory over Mali on Wednesday evening.
England U17 will take on Spain U17 at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata on Saturday, 28 October. The game will precede Brazil and Mali’s third place playoff, with kick-off scheduled for 3:30pm London time.
Who to watch
All eyes will be on England’s Rhian Brewster this weekend. The 17-year-old has been England’s standout performer so far. The Liverpool academy star has now scored six goals in his last two matches. He guided England through their quarter-final and semi-final games, and will be hopeful of grabbing a few more on Saturday.
However, Spain has its own star goalscorer in Abel Ruiz. The Barcelona academy player has netted 27 times in 32 appearances for the U17 side since moving up the ranks. He currently has one less goal than Brewster. However, his performances have been more consistent. He has scored in four of Spain’s six games at this tournament so far.
What does victory mean for the winning team?
While a great excuse to celebrate, winning this tournament doesn’t mean a great deal. Previous winners, such as Mexico, Switzerland and Nigeria, have struggled to continue their development as their winning players progressed towards senior level. However, it does provide a good indication that development is heading in the right direction.
Both teams will be happy to know that they have some very promising youngsters in their ranks. However, there will still be plenty of work to do in order to ensure that they continue to progress.
For the players, this tournament offered a chance to impress their respective clubs and grab an opportunity to play at club level. German side Borussia Dortmund recalled Jadon Sancho to make his senior debut due to his performances in the group stages. Likewise, Brewster and Ruiz will undoubtedly get chances this season too.