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Changing a nation’s approach to football, eleven million kids at a time!

Arup Soans
EXPERT COLUMNIST
Feature
461   //    Timeless

There were open-ended questions and yes, there were many moving parts but the upside outweighed any argument to differ
There were open-ended questions and yes, there were many moving parts but the upside outweighed any argument to differ


A six-part on-demand series of excerpts from - India playing host to the most attended FIFA Youth World Cup in history. This is part-two. Part-one can be read here.

Everybody stand up! The Secretary of Sports (Government of India) enters the room seeming busy and uninterested, takes his seat at the head of the table before the rest sit down. “Batao! (‘Tell me’ in Hindi), What are we going to do to popularise football in the country? Did you all hear the Prime Minister’s MannKiBaat talk on football?”


PMO Tweets about football how the #FIFAU17WC is a great opportunity.
PMO Tweets about football how the #FIFAU17WC is a great opportunity.

Our project director clears his throat and chimes in, “Sir, we have a plan and presentation for this group.” The group being fairly senior ladies and gentlemen from different areas of the Government, Sports Authority of India, the Football Federation as well as a FIFA representative (Development Officer - Asia) and few others involved in the delivery of the U-17 World Cup.

We present a plan that we have been working on for at least eight months, which includes popularising football through a simple four versus four format in schools across all six World Cup host states with a provisional plan to implement the same across other states as well.

The entire room was quite impressed with the tall task of us planning to reach eleven million kids through football.

“So, what support will you need from us (the Government) if we are to roll this out across the nation?” asks the secretary. “Well, apart from connecting us with the education departments in all 29 states and certain permissions to host football festivals, approximately 12 crores ($1.8 million at the time).” “Done!” And just like that our hard work and dream to take football and the U-17 World Cup story to schools across the nation paid off (literally). The minutes of that meeting along with the budget figures signed and delivered.

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Little do external parties and individuals understand the stakeholder management involved in meticulously planning and executing something as detail-driven as a 24-team World Cup.

To put things in perspective, you have FIFA for one who of course have the experience in operationally delivering World Cups of different age groups over many decades but don’t have the experience of selling a World Cup in new markets.

Then you have the Central Government and six State Governments (for any non-Indian reading this – that’s six different languages, cultures, food-types, political parties, leaders, sporting goals, you catch my drift) whose ministers and bureaucrats have never experienced a FIFA tournament.

And furthermore, you have the Football Federation, six state associations and not to forget the FIFA partners (sponsors) who have a very outsider view of what it would take to deliver a FIFA tournament in India.

Now all this encapsulated the World Cup but all of this multiplied by 29 states across India encapsulated Mission Eleven Million. Did we have a task on our hands or what?

The result of course like the professionals we are who delivered the most attended Youth World Cup to date delivered more than expected when it came to a program like this.

-      Over 11 million students reached

-      Over 21 thousand schools registered

-      Over 23 thousand teachers registered

-      Over 47 thousand footballs distributed

So, money in the bank didn’t really account for anything unless we got all the stakeholders to buy in and play their part in this massive exercise. Apart from having to time it to perfection leading up to the tournament, we needed action and we needed action ASAP. Our first and biggest hurdle was FIFA.

I don’t blame a large organisation like FIFA to answer every request with a ‘NO!’ and to put ourselves in their shoes we only saw this as the biggest opportunity to reach more kids through football than any other program in history.

Yes, there were open-ended questions and yes, there were many moving parts but the upside outweighed any argument to differ.

Back to my first part, where I mentioned the captain being the one with all the clout and had to make deviations at our behest.

We got the FIFA President to talk about Mission Eleven Million to the media when he came to India to unveil the India 2017 emblem.

Everyone else fell in line including the FIFA partners and national supporters (ones we had on-board and ones we were yet to sign). It soon started getting the support we needed and before we knew it we had a calendar full of workshops (teaching the teachers) and football festivals across the country leading up to our key events like the U-17 World Cup ticketing (next part of this series) launch and U-17 World Cup Draw.


Mission Eleven Million kicks-off in Goa!
Mission Eleven Million kicks-off in Goa!

Taking a few steps back, we envisioned this program as one to help us make football the sport of choice amongst India’s youth and using the FIFA U-17 World Cup to engage and reward as many kids as possible.

With our target age group of 10 to 18 years, which brand in their right mind would not want to be part of something of this scale? Engaging eleven million kids meant engaging their parents as well as their schools as a whole.

All our existing partners jumped on-board the program and engaged with all the activities in some form or the other, be it giving away freebies and goodies or be it engaging their media teams to spread the word and be part of all the workshops and festivals we conducted in every state.

Even though we had not signed all our national supporters when the program kicked-off, just talking about the scale of it in meetings with CEOs and decision makers definitely got their mind’s working and was a crucial part of us closing all six spots.

Talking about it is one thing but executing it is another. From the get-go we knew that controlling the quality of football was not going to be in our hands, and in retrospect that was probably FIFA’s apprehension as well.

Though we knew that if we begin the journey with every sense of integrity and competence we would be able to pass that on to the ones actually implementing the program – the teachers.

The model was simple, we got the state education department to ensure that schools (Physical Education Teachers, Headmasters and Principals) attended the workshop on a pre-decided date in that city or nearby city for that matter.

We dazzled them with our presentation about the World Cup and explained how simple it is to orchestrate four versus four football in any given space. We provided the schools with footballs and a manual to help them during the implementation across all age groups.

Lastly, we ensured the schools attended the festivals hosted in their city or nearby city for more excitement, learning and goodies.

Popularise football and not teach football was always the name of the game. The tangible impact of the program in relation to the World Cup was seen in attendance numbers though the real impact apart from the immediate results of the program will be seen in years to come.

Once the fantastic stories of the program started coming in, FIFA was smart enough to jump on the band-wagon and officially call the program the FIFA U-17 World Cup legacy program and even sent FIFA World Cup Winner Carles Puyol to India to promote it and the tournament. Two winners at the end of it all – eleven million participating students and Indian Football!


FIFA World Cup Winner Carles Puyol enjoying his time in India
FIFA World Cup Winner Carles Puyol enjoying his time in India
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Arup Soans
EXPERT COLUMNIST
Arup Soans is an expert in business strategy, sports marketing and new media. Apart from being a Sports Business Consultant to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and All India Football Federation (AIFF), Arup was the Local Organising Committee of the FIFA Under 17 World Cup India 2017 Head of Marketing, managing a team of 45 people. The committee was responsible for hosting and staging the tournament across six cities in India. The 17th edition of the tournament ended up being the highest ever attended FIFA youth competition. Armed with twelve plus years of professional experience, Arup has worked at New York based Major League Soccer and Perform Sports Media. Arup was part of the Organising Committee for the Commonwealth Youth Games in Pune, India. He was also part of senior management teams at organisations operating in the IT, retail and marine industries. Arup is the first Indian to hold a master’s degree in sports business from New York University.
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