Ranked in the lower reaches of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, India are strugglers even on the continental scene. In fact, the world's second most populous country has made little impression on the international stage over the past four decades. They have never represented Asia in a FIFA World Cup™ and have failed to progress beyond the group phase during their last two appearances in the AFC Asian Cup.
Indeed, it is a record which fails to reflect their huge potential and belies the nation's passion for the game. However, with the next FIFA U-17 World Cup to be staged in the South Asian country in 2017, their dreams of a maiden FIFA tournament have finally materialised.
For the hosts, it is not only a precious opportunity to rub shoulders with the world's best, but also a good chance to boost the country's development, as India's star striker Jeje Lalpekhlua explained. "I am very happy that we have been guaranteed the chance of hosting the FIFA U-17 World Cup," the 25-year-old India and Mohun Bagan striker told FIFA.com. "It is our country's first FIFA competition, as we qualify as hosts. I hope we can leave a good mark through our junior side's performances, as well as our people's hospitality to the participating teams and guests from across the world."
"We had once been Asia's powerhouses," he continued, referring to India's heady days in the 1950s and 1960s when they twice won gold in the Asian Games, while also finishing second in the AFC Asian Cup. "Things have changed greatly since then. The likes of Japan and Korea Republic have established themselves among the continent's elite courtesy of their big investment in football.
"We have big potential in terms of population and if we invest enough to improve our infrastructures and facilities, we can make great progress. There is plenty of work to do for us and the U-17 World Cup provides the chance for us to kick-start the rebuilding process."
Opportunity on the big stage
For Lalpekhlua, the next FIFA U-17 World Cup is an opportunity for India’s young talents to emerge and develop. And his expectations for India's first global showing are understandable, considering his own emergence as a promising star in a regional competition - the 2010 South Asian Games.
Six years back, Lalpekhlua – a teenage striker for Pune - was lucky to feature in the regional showpiece when the AIFF (All India Football Federation) decided to send their U-19 side instead of their U-23 team. Being three to four years younger than their opponents, India entered the tournament aiming to gain international exposure, but Lalpekhlua and his team-mates stunned even their own supporters by storming into the last four. Notably, the diminutive forward completed a hat-trick as they thrashed Pakistan 5-1 to progress to the semi-finals.
That showing proved to be the launching pad for Lalpekhlua, who would go on to graduate into the U-23 side before joining the senior national team in 2012. Up to now, he has notched 12 goals from 34 international appearances, a tally which has established him among India's best. His club form is similarly impressive this season, with the on-song predator on target six times as Mohun Bagan reached the second stage of the ongoing AFC Cup.
Looking back, Lalpekhlua attributed his smooth youth development to former India coach Bob Houghton. "He is a great coach," he said of the Englishman who managed India from 2006 to 2011. "He and his assistant Colin Toal trained the U-19 team and I made good progress under them. Coach Houghton soon called me into the senior national team and fielded me in the (2011) SAFF Championship qualifiers, as well as other international competitions. I was very young then, and I made major improvements during his tenure."
Another figure who has made an impressive impact on Lalpekhlua is none other than his father, a former star from their hometown club Mizoram. It is, in fact, a well-known story in India with Lalpekhlua making his debut for the club a few months after his dad retired.
"What I have achieved today is completely due to the support by my family. They encouraged me to go forward as I decided to pursue a football career. And they supported me regardless of my ups and downs. Some other youngsters are not fortunate enough to get the family backing, but I have the whole family behind me."
With India's first-ever FIFA tournament kicking off in 15 months time, Lalpekhlua places high hopes on the nation’s junior team. "My advice (for them) is to keep working hard and following your dreams. A young player may have talents and potential but you still must work hard. Meanwhile, the road (to success) is bumpy and you should prepare yourself for setbacks.”