New Delhi: The All India Football Federation President Praful Patel has claimed infrastructure in the country has been raised to international standards for next month's U-17 World Cup, a step towards making football a pan-India sport.
He said that the successful hosting of a tournament of such stature and the Indian players rubbing shoulders with the best in the world could attract the youth of the country to take up football in a big way.
"For a country like India, the priority remains to make a mark on the World stage and the FIFA U-17 World Cup hosting rights could not have come at a better time. The very fact that our boys will be getting a chance to rub shoulders with the best of the world is amazing," Patel told PTI in an exclusive interview.
"The overall infrastructure of the country has been improved to be at par with the international standards, which will benefit Indian football immensely," Patel added. The AIFF president then explained why he feels that the tournament will raise the profile of the sport in the country.
"Hosting a tournament of such stature will also help galvanise the face of Indian football among the masses and youth of India. With the U-17 World Cup taking place, the popularity will surely grow and the mission of making football a pan-India sport will be realised," he said when asked if the tournament would bring a football revolution in the country.
Patel, who has been at the helm of affairs for more than eight years, said that India is ready for the mega-event starting October 6.
"We have had the Local Organising Committee (LOC) in place and the team has been working tirelessly to keep everything in order. I am extremely thankful to the Government of India, the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, FIFA and all other stakeholders for their support right from the time we bid to host the event."
The AIFF chief said that the Indian Under-17 team has also prepared well for the October 6-28 tournament and the boys have promised him to give their best on the field.
"In our effort to field a competitive team for the FIFA U-17 World Cup, the AIFF has provided the best of exposure for the preparation of the team," he said.
"The boys have been training together for over four years now and have travelled to various international exposure tours all over the World playing friendly matches against national teams, clubs and participating in many youth level competitions.
"They (the boys) are a positive bunch. I had a detailed chat with them and their confidence level struck me. Under Coach (Luis Norton de) Matos, they stay aware of the challenge and they promised me that will fight till the final whistle. I wish them all the best. It's time to stand up for Indian football and back the blue," said Patel.
The former Union Civil Aviation Minister said a successful hosting of the Under-17 World Cup could be a precursor to India getting the hosting rights of the Under-20 World Cup.
"I think hosting the U-20 FIFA World Cup will be the next logical step for the development of football in India. With India hosting the FIFA U-17 World Cup India 2017 this year in October, we feel hosting the U-20 World Cup would be the best way to sustain the footballing momentum in India.
"Even though the event was held earlier this year in Asia in Korea Republic, we would be happy to discuss with FIFA about the possibility of hosting the event in India in 2019," he said.
Talking about the overall football development in the country, he said the AIFF has been investing a lot in the grassroots development and the national team has also started doing well as was reflected in the recent rise in FIFA rankings. He acknowledged the immense support from FIFA and AFC in this effort.
"FIFA's support has been immense. But support alone will not deliver unless you are interested in doing the work yourself. Unless you invest in the grassroots, you won't get the results."
Patel said that AIFF's work at the grassroot level has been praised by FIFA.
"Our efforts in the grassroots has been acknowledged by the AFC when we won the AFC President Recognition Award for Grassroots Football during the AFC Annual Awards in 2014 and then went on to win the AFC Developing Member Association of the Year Award at the AFC Annual FC Awards 2016. They were a fillip for us and a motivation to do better. "We are in the process of starting the Baby Leagues and the U-13 League. The last edition of the U-15 League had over 50 teams and the U-18 League around 40 Teams. In addition, we have kicked-off the Indian women's League which was a huge success last season and it will only get better and bigger from here," he said.
He said the AIFF's Youth Development Programmes and the Academy Project have been a major success with many players under them carving a niche for themselves in their clubs and even in the national team.
"All of these has culminated together into the success of the (senior) national team as we won a record eight international matches on the trot which is an all- time Indian record.
"The giant leap of faith enabled us to rise from 173 in FIFA Rankings to 96 (last month), our second best FIFA ranking ever (India are presently ranked 107th). The sweetest part is that we are on the verge of qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup 2019 and I congratulate Stephen (Constantine), the boys and the support staff for the tremendous consistency."
He also made the point that Indian football has made strides from being a "sleeping giant", as had been coined by former FIFA Chief Sepp Blatter when he visited the country in 2007.
"Mr. Joseph Blatter had mentioned during his last visit to India that the 'sleeping giant' has started to wake-up. Taking it further, the present FIFA President Mr. Gianni Infantino during his last visit had described India as the "passionate giant.
"Football is developing in India and the passion is growing year after year. Results wont be immediate but it will follow in coming years," he concluded.