For a nation of a billion people, it is quite remarkable that India is yet to find its feet in the footballing landscape. While the launch of the ISL certainly put the country on the map, there is still a long way to go before the country can be counted among the elite in Asia, let alone the world. But thanks to Coca-Cola's partnership with the All India Football Federation (AIFF), the road to glory has been made a lot easier.
While it is easy to form national leagues, which become successful by integrating foreign players, it is much more difficult to build a national side that is capable of challenging the best in the world. The importance of having a strong foundation, especially at the grassroots level, cannot be taken lightly. Not only do youth programmes provide a platform to develop future professional footballers, they also give youngsters the opportunity to lead an active and healthier lifestyle. And that is precisely where Coca-Cola comes in.
Coca-Cola have come a long way from organising their own inter-school football tournament in 2008 to becoming the official partners of the national U-15 football tournament (which is today called The Coca-Cola Cup). The Coca-Cola Cup is the biggest grassroots level football tournament in India for youngsters under the age of 15, and it is held annually. But the success of the tournament didn’t happen overnight; it was a long evolutionary process.
Coca-Cola’s unwavering commitment towards improving the grassroots football in India is now starting to bear fruit and the results are there for all to see. It all started when they entered into a partnership with AIFF in 2009 and became the official sponsors of the Mir Iqbal Hussain Trophy (the National Under 16 football championship).
Since the birth of that association, the participation from youngsters in football has risen exponentially. The number of players that took part in the tournament increased from 6,000 to 40,000 in just two years.
Renowned for their proclivity for promoting a sporting culture, Coca Cola further entrenched themselves into the future of Indian football when they became the proud sponsors of "The Coca-Cola Cup" in 2012. A national tournament for youngsters aged between 12 and 15, the U-15 Coca-Cola Cup today serves as a platform for the national U-16 side, with the top teenagers from the tournament given an opportunity to train at AIFF-FIFA academies.
The tournament consists of three main stages. Stage I is the district level, where inter-school matches are held across the country and the stand-out players are chosen. Stage II is the state level, where the teams are divided into five zones (North, South, East, West and North-east) based on their location. The zonal winners and runners-up then compete in the third and final stage, also called the ‘National Finals’, with the winning team being crowned as the National Champion State.
Last year's tournament saw more than 41,000 teenagers from 86 cities take part in the biggest edition till date. Meghalaya were crowned champions after beating Odisha 1-0, with Indian football team captain Sunil Chhetri watching from the crowd. After the game, Chhetri was full of praise for the tournament. He said: "With the right training and infrastructure, we too can produce world class footballers and it is initiatives like this that re-instate my belief that India could make its mark on the global football map."
With the U-17 World Cup in 2017, which India is set to host, there is a growing belief that the experience of playing in the Coca-Cola Cup is the perfect platform for youngsters who are looking to create football history and make their country proud.