- India 2017 hosts face USA in their opening game
- Sunil Gulati, FIFA Council member, was born in India but raised in USA
- Colombia and Ghana complete strong Group A
Laughs, big smiles and a handshake. The exact moment at the Official Draw that 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup hosts India were pulled out of the pot to play USA in the Opening Match saw Sunil Gulati, wearing his hat as head of the US Soccer Federation, turn to his Indian counterpart Praful Patel and grab his hand in a warm handshake. It was one of the more light-hearted moments of the ceremony in Mumbai earlier this month.
Gulati is also a member of the FIFA Council, and Chairman of the Organising Committee for the U-17 World Cup. His heart was somewhat split during the draw, given that he was born in India – with most of his family based on the subcontinent – and moved to the USA aged five. The hosts’ opening match should prove a fascinating spectacle to the neutral, and a big test for both sides. The game raises the curtain on a tournament that promises much after an intriguing draw in Mumbai.
“Every World Cup draw is exciting, but the fact that USA are drawn into the same group as India is especially meaningful for me,” Gulati told *FIFA.com *in an exclusive interview. “The overall tournament will be an inspiring event for the sport in India, and the chance for the US to help open the tournament on the first day is a special opportunity. Of course, with Ghana, perennial power at U-17 level and Colombia in the group, it won't be only about the US and India.”
The age at which Gulati left India means he has “memories of memories” of the nascent years in the country of his birth. Due to his connection to both nations, he is uniquely placed to comment on the challenges now facing his mother country, in comparison to those once faced by his adopted homeland.
“I think India’s made a lot of strides in football,” Gulati said. “It’s a big challenge there because it’s such a large country, it’s not traditionally been the number one sport and it’s also got a very diverse population. In those senses, it’s a bit like the USA. We’ve talked about this with the AIFF (All India Football Federation) leadership on some of the similarities with the challenge that we’ve had in the U.S. and that they’ve got here."
The economics lecturer believes the youth tournament is an important step on the road for the subcontinent.
“The U-17 World Cup is an important event, because it’s a showcase event. You’ve got so many young players that become stars from this tournament and I think there will be fond memories for those players and the people watching them.
“It’s a great opportunity to see young players who aren’t constrained,” Gulati continued. “Maybe some of the discipline and pressure you see in senior team football is lost there, and I think that’s a good thing at this age. You don’t know who those stars will be, whereas in a World Cup you expect Messi or Ronaldo to step up. So many top players come through this tournament and I think it’ll happen again.”
One prescient recent example is the USA’s own Christian Pulisic. He featured at Chile 2015 before establishing himself as a key player in the senior national team, and at German giants Borussia Dortmund.
“Christian’s obviously done very well for us,” Gulati said. “He was clearly a very good player, but I don’t think many would have predicted how quickly he became an important player for our national team and at Dortmund, who have a lot of very good players. He’s a great talent.
“We had Landon Donovan at New Zealand 1999, he was the Golden Ball winner there. DaMarcus Beasley got the Silver Ball in that tournament and he’s played four senior World Cups. Those are important names in our history and hopefully Christian becomes a very important name in our future.”
One thing is for certain, the next US generation will have an keenly interested observer for their opening India 2017 game against the hosts.
“I think I’ll skip my classes at Columbia [University] and come for that opening game!” Gulati laughed. Whether he receives a permission slip and attends or not, the New Delhi clash will see the wider Gulati family join their compatriots in following what should prove to be a fascinating opening matchday and tournament.