Kolkata: With less than a month to go for the FIFA Under-17 World Cup, it's time to act and ensure that all stadiums are packed to the brim during the October 6-28 tournament, feels All India Football Federation technical committee chairman Shyam Thapa.
Terming the U-17 World Cup as a gift to the nation, Thapa said that it should not be played in front of open stadiums, a grim picture that has been a feature of India's top tier I-League.
The Local Organising Committee has expressed concern over the lukewarm response in venues like Delhi and Goa though the sale of tickets has picked up recently.
Thapa asked the organisers to involve schools by distributing complimentary tickets and bring school children at the stadium.
"We have seen I-League matches in empty stadiums. It should not be the case in U-17 World Cup. Go to schools, give the children free tickets and ensure that they come and watch all the matches. It should look like a World Cup. The onus is on AIFF to make this a grand success," Thapa told PTI in an interview here.
"U-17 World Cup is a gift to the Indian football. FIFA also wants to popularise football and they know India is large market and and a growing economy, the 69-year-old said.
"I am not sure whether in my life time, I will ever get to see India qualify for the World Cup. So it's a great opportunity for all of us to support and celebrate the
He pointed out that the franchise tournament Indian Super League has been successful in bringing crowd back to watching football.
"In the 1960s and 70s, there would be a huge interest in football with packed stadiums but crowd suddenly vanished in the 90s," the 1970 Asian Games bronze medallist and a Mohun Bagan star said.
"But thanks to ISL, football is back in the spotlight. For any sport to survive you need crowd. Mohun Bagan and East Bengal are there only because of their fan base."
Thapa, who chaired an AIFF technical committee meeting in Bengaluru last month, said his primary focus is to make India Asian giants, looking beyond dominance among South Asian countries.
"It's about playing well and making an impact (in U-17 World Cup) and more importantly to hold on to the team. They will be our future. All our effort should be to improve their standard and take them to the next level," he said, outlining the technical committee's move to make U-17 side play in the upcoming I-League.
"There's no point making India a giant among SAFF countries, the target must be to dominate at Asian level. We have to dream with the boys, and youth development should be the first thing in our agenda. I will discuss the matter with India coach Stephen Constantine," he said.
Thapa said the country now has so many A-Licence holder coaches and every state has some sort of infrastructure, and state associations should get involved in nurturing talented footballers.
The Indian U-17 team held Chile in a tournament in Mexico recently but Thapa felt World Cup will be at a different level.
"I'm not bothered about where would India finish in the U-17 World Cup," he said.
"All teams are very strong. I do not want to talk about whether the Indians will make the quarterfinals or not. Forget the tour match (in Mexico), it will be at an altogether different level," he said about India who play in New Delhi in Group A with USA, Colombia and Ghana.
The U-17 World Cup will be played in six cities across India -- New Delhi, Navi Mumbai, Kolkata, Kochi, Guwahati and Margao - from October 6-28.