The sporting landscape in India has undergone a tremendous change in the last 15 years. Once a predominantly cricket-crazy country, India today has more than one sport that it tunes into. Not only is it a case of a wider range of sports being available for viewing, but also a case of more diversity in sports adopted by youngsters as professions.
But how far along has the country come in creating a health-conscious sports culture? How many youngsters today look to maintain a healthy lifestyle? While that can’t be answered with any measure of certainty at the moment, the number of youngsters who are taking up sports from an early age is certainly rising. And a healthy lifestyle is more often than not just an extension of involvement in sports.
Football is one of the sports that have come up in a big way in terms of both viewership and interest. The Indian Super League in its first incarnation has garnered pretty impressive fan following and attendance numbers. The tournament broadly addresses the top of the food chain and in due course serves to be the ultimate playing field for top quality football in India.
Meanwhile, the hunt to identify the next rung of talent in the sport has been subtly going on for a few years now, with focus on the grassroots and youth levels. Any kind of developmental work has to begin at the bottom of the pyramid, as FIFA’s Secretary-General Jerome Valcke emphasized during his visit to India in October this year.
"What is important is that whenever you do something at the top level, you don't forget about the grassroots programs and to develop football at the level of the kids. The ISL is helping; the Indian league (I-League) is there as well. We must make sure that we're all together with one goal - to develop football in India and help India play in the World Cup sooner!" he was quoted as saying.
Of course, it is common knowledge now that India has won the rights to stage the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 2017, and work is well underway towards that project.
A key partner of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) in this mission has been Coca-Cola. India’s leading beverage company has been an active agent of change through its outreach and sustainability programmes.
The Coca-Cola Cup traces its roots back to 2008, when Coca-Cola India first organized their youth level championship across the country. In 2009, Coca-Cola decided to partner with the AIFF to sponsor the erstwhile Sub Junior National Football Championship and turn it into a large-scale national grassroots football tournament. This initiative was directed towards fostering a more vibrant sporting culture in the country, in turn promoting a healthy and active lifestyle.
The tournament looks at identifying youngsters with potential and providing them with a solid platform to develop their inherent talent into a full-fledged and meaningful profession. Recognizing the huge potential present in football in India, the mission looks at training young football talent in accordance with international football standards.
The tournament helps to showcase young football talent while also in turn acting as a channel to create a talent pool for the upcoming Under-17 World Cup.
The tournament begins at the district level where inter-school matches are held across more than 70 cities; the best players then make it through to play at the state or zonal level. From the zonal level, 10 teams progress to the national finals, from where the ultimate champions are determined.
Meghalaya are the defending champions, having beaten the boys from Odisha in last year’s final. In that edition, the tournament drew participation from over 41,000 young footballers from 2,610 schools across 86 cities.
Coca-Cola is aiding in the AIFF’s larger mission which is to have more participation at the grassroots level (6-12 years), which in turn will result in more and more children taking up the game. All of that will result in a strong youth football structure taking shape in the country.
Along with the AIFF’s other in-house grassroots programs, such tournaments seek to augment developmental efforts in the country as far as football is concerned, so that when the U-17 World Cup comes around in three years’ time, India can put forward a top quality squad as the host nation.