Mumbai: Indian football is on the verge of history, with the 2017 FIFA u-17 World Cup slated to be held in the country, later this year.
The man, who has been tirelessly working behind the scenes is none other than Joy Bhattacharjya, who is the project director for the FIFA u-17 World Cup. Bhattacharjya, who was closely associated with one of the biggest domestic cricket tournaments in the world – Indian Premier League – as the director of Kolkata Knight Riders, had decided to lend his expertise to the beautiful game, in an effort to popularise it in a cricket-crazy nation.
With about six months to go for the biggest football tournament to be held in India to kick off, Deccan Chronicle caught-up with Joy Bhattacharjya. Here are the excerpts from our interview with him.
DC: What were you looking to achieve, when you joined as the project director of the 2017 FIFA u-17 World Cup?
JB: While still with KKR, we were on a tour of Germany, looking at football facilities. One of the people there, was Sunando Dar, the CEO of I-League. He was going to deliver his papers to FIFA at Zurich from there. That’s when I first knew that we had a WC.
In the beginning when they said that they need somebody to look after it, I did not have much interest in it. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that it’s a huge opportunity, and there’ll never be a first FIFA World Cup in India. This is the first, and it’s always going to be very special.
DC: You have been very closely associated with the IPL. What do you think Indian football can learn from IPL?
JB: Winning (the cricket World Cup) in 1983 was a big part (of the development of cricket). If India had not won the World Cup in 1983, things may have been different. The BCCI has done a lot of good work as well, especially at the base level. The IPL was a phenomenally professionally organised. If there’s anything that we can take more and more of, its of taking that professionalism to Indian sport at every level.
There are two aspects we can learn from. One is IPL, which is a very professional league, and the other is FIFA, and that is also a fascinating thing. Remember, FIFA has been conducting World Cup for 87 years now, while the IPL has been running for only 10 years. So the experience they have in running a tournament is fantastic. Everything in FIFA is player-centric. They believe that the players are the core of the game. The players’ needs are the most important things for FIFA.
DC: How far has the ISL helped to professionalise Indian football?
JB: What happens in any sport is that you need to grow it in two deirections. One is top-down, which is what the ISL is doing. They are trying to bring stars to India, bring to top level, and hope it percolates.
What a World Cup does, especially a junior World Cup does, is that it works from bottom-up. Doing the World Cup here, having the Mission XI million, reaching out to 15,000 schools around the country, you are building the game from bottom-up.
You can’t have a top-down, and not the bottom-up, and also you can’t have a situation where you don’t have stars.
Just look at Northeast. There was not much spurt in football since the 1940s. But one Bhaichung Bhutia came up, and now today, almost half of the u-17 World Cup team is from the Northeast.
DC: The BCCI has benefited a lot from concentrating on developing cricket in tier-2 cities. What is the AIFF doing to reach out to potential talent from these smaller towns?
JB: One of the biggest problems with football in India is that even with the ISL and all going on, the footprint of football in our country is very less. There’s Bengal, Maharashtra, Goa, and the Northeast. So the thing is that the AIFF is looking to have division one or division two teams from almost half the states in India, before 2018. If you do not have professional football teams in your state, then football cannot grow.
One of the biggest problems is re-dressing the footprint of Indian football. The WC is being held in cities that already have a lot of interest, but for us to stretch the game, we need to go to cities where kids do not have the opportunity to play football today.
DC: What are you hoping to achieve through the Mission XI Million initiative?
JB: We try to motivate the kids and get them to play football, and the way to do that is to get to the schools, and get the schools to get involved in the process. And this is a Government of India and AIFF initiative in football.
Of our 11 million target, we have already reached 1.8 million children. It’s a force multiplier. If I speak to 100 children, my reach is limited. But if I speak to a 100 schools and motivate them to get the children involved, then my reach is a lot greater.
DC: A lot of parents prefer their kids to concentrate on academics, rather than on sports. How do you plan on tackling this problem?
JB: Of course, this is the basic problem. It is the parents and the school also. The schools say that parents come to them for (academic) results. If there are no results, they are not going to come.
We have to sit down and tell them that this will not hurt their kid, this will actually help them. It is actually a part of the development of the kid, and it is in no way taking away.
We incentivise the school also. We tell them that you will feature in fifa.com, your schools could be one of the Mission XI Million star schools, your kids could win World Cup tickets.
Because you are absolutely right, the biggest problem in Indian football is not the kids playing. There is enough infrastructure. You go to South America, they’re extremely poor. People like Pele did not learn in beautiful grounds and training academies. They learnt it on the streets. But what they did was they had a large enough base of kids who came in. Our job is to influence the gatekeepers of Indian football, which is the parents and the schools.
DC: There have been a lot reports that the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi may not be ready in time for the WC. Could you shed some light on this issue?
JB: There are two issues with Kochi. One is the lack of speed on the activities that are going on there. And the other is that inside the stadium, there are a lot of shops, and they needed to be closed for the tournament.
While we had an assurance from them, we needed a written undertaking. The second part of it has been addressed. There has been a letter form the Chief Minister (Pinarayi Vijayan) that there will be no issue with that. He has put together a special task force, just to make sure that the work is ready in time for the WC. While there has been concern, I think remedial action has been taken already, and we are hoping to see good results.
DC: This is a problem that a lot of stadiums have faced. Most recently, the training pitches at the Cooperage Stadium in Mumbai were occupied by marriage functions during the Mumbai FC vs Bengaluru FC game. How do you ensure that these things don’t get in the way of football?
JB: From May-June onwards, when we sign on the stadium, we actually have a lock-down on the stadiums. And for six months, they have to take permission from us, before conducting any big activity in the stadium. It takes three-five months for a good turf to develop, and we are not going to let anything come in the way of that.
One good thing is that FIFA makes you sign a series of guarantees. We’ve already had a very bad experience with the Commonwealth Games. So to not take these things seriously is not an option at all.
DC: A lot of work has been done to prepare India to host the WC. How does Indian football take it forward, after the WC is over?
JB: We Indians are good at technology, but similarly, we are very bad at doing things afterwards. I understand what you are saying, aap body phek ke event kar lo, lekin uske baad, our follow-through is terrible (you put your whole effort into the event, but after that, our follow-through is poor).
But this is where FIFA is actually good. They create legacy programmes. Now say for example, if you are saving Rs 10 for the grounds, they will say that you put away Rs 10 for the maintenance. And we give them a plan of how we can use corporate tournaments to make sure that the ground keeps paying for its own maintenance.
Another thing is Mission XI Million. We have this huge database of students and schools, we make sure that the data is compliant with what these people have, with what the AIFF has. We make sure that all this data goes to them.
That’s why you will see that none of Mission XI Million is about coaching. It’s about popularising football. So I have to create the interest, and get the kids to play the game.
Am I sure that we will have a great legacy? I don’t know. But we have thought about this, and we are trying to put things in place to ensure that there is a legacy....