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The significance of FIFA U-17 World Cup

The significance of FIFA U-17 World Cup
From ESPN - October 7, 2017

And so that day has arrived, as India have become the fifth Asian nation to have hosted a FIFA U-17 World Cup. The first day alone saw 11 goals scored in four games, and only one match was settled with a margin greater than one goal.

But what is it that the 504 players across 24 nations are seeking to gain from this event? And how significant could this tournament be in their nascent football career?

The gulf in quality

Richard Hood, head of youth development of the All India Football Federation (AIFF), says that while the gap in quality between senior football and lower rungs like U-20 and U-17 football is progressively narrowing each year, it is still a long shot to hope that today's U-17 prospects will necessarily light up the world stage tomorrow.

"It is believed that only one in 200 U-17 players goes on to get a professional contract with a good club, and this is simply because every year there will only be so many players retiring or getting injured for a coach to invest in a young talent," he says. "And here I am talking of clubs like River Plate, Sao Paulo, Manchester United and Real Madrid. If you see the career of most of these players, they will probably have to settle for a team in the second division."

Hood cites an English Football Association (FA) study that crunched the numbers for the 116 clubs across the top five divisions of English football, and their academies. It was found that about 98 percent of those who got a scholarship at 16 found themselves outside the top five divisions by age 18. Another study revealed that only eight in 400 players who were given a professional contract at 18 were still active in the game at 22.

Not a biggie for the developed football world

Shaji Prabhakaran, president of Delhi United and a former regional development officer with FIFA, believes this U-17 World Cup is not as crucial for countries where the football ecosystem is already developed.

"The path from youth levels into the club level is understood (in those countries). But for other teams like India, the World Cup is a huge opportunity," he says. "There will be scouts coming to watch the World Cup matches and the games will be televised across the world. When I was in Chile (for the U-17 World Cup in 2015), many players were picked. The boys who performed exceptionally well were chased. Many of the Nigerian boys got picked by English or Bundesliga clubs, after they turned eighteen. There is no other stage for you, especially in a country like ours."

Former Laos manager Steve Darby, who has also coached Mohun Bagan and Mumbai City in Indian football, is a good example of someone who shone as goalkeeper with Liverpool schools in the 1970s, but a middling playing career saw him move to coaching at the age of 24. Darby does not believe England's U-20 World Cup win will help add much interest in this campaign, saying, "The English media is far more engrossed in the Premier League than in national youth teams. I think it will only be recognised if they get to the final -- it's a tournament that's seen as a development programme."

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