By Debayan Mukherjee & Sanu George
Soccer's global apex body FIFA says it has "two different contingency plans" in mind in case Kochi fails to meet the May 15 deadline to rev up renovation work for the U-17 World Cup, taking place in India for the first time. A Kerala minister is confident of the deadline being met.
Handpicked among the six venues to host the mega event starting October 6, Kochi was deemed to be below par by the FIFA delegation headed by Jaime Yarza that inspected the various stadia one last time in March.
The pace of work at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, coupled with shops around its vicinity, were reasons for concern when FIFA visited the football crazy city in Kerala.
"It would be a pity if one of the biggest football hubs in India is left out of the excitement, but this issue is with the authorities now and they have the resources to make it happen. In any case, safety, security and proper facilities are paramount and if we don't feel these requirements have been fulfilled we will look into other options," Yarza, FIFA's head of events, told IANS in an email interview.
"We have two different contingency plans," he informed.
"One would be moving the allocated group to one of the (other) chosen venues; the other one would be using a completely different venue. We cannot elaborate further now, as we believe that Kochi will find solutions to the various problems."
While announcing the schedule, Kochi was awarded one quarterfinal on October 22, besides six Group D matches.
The 75,000-capacity stadium, which hosted the Indian Super League final last December between Atletico de Kolkata and Kerala Blasters, besides hosting Blasters' home games, recorded the highest attendance of 54,913 in Blasters' 0-0 draw against Delhi Dynamos on October 9.
In view of the frenzied support for football in Kerala, Yarza said FIFA is still keeping faith in the state, which has produced players of the calibre of I.M. Vijayan and Jo Paul Ancheri.
"We are not currently considering leaving out Kochi and Kerala -- we are convinced that there is still time to solve the problems there. The state government needs to speed up the renovation work and find an appropriate solution for the shops -- they have until the 15th of May to convince us and the LOC (Local organising Committee)," Yarza said.
In Kochi, Kerala Sports and Industries Minister A.C. Moideen said: "Yes, it's true that the visiting FIFA delegation that inspected the Kochi Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium had raised some apprehensions, but each and every issue has been addressed and no one needs to have any doubts any more.
"One objection, or rather concern, that they raised was about the presence of generators that are used by shops and establishments that are housed in the stadium complex. These shops are on rent and you know in Kerala, there are times that the power supply gets snapped due to various reasons and to beat that these shops have their own portable generators.
"The FIFA delegation said this was a security concern and we have addressed that issue by asking all the shops to see that all such portable generators are removed from their shops till the matches are completed," Moideen pointed out.
He said another point that was raised by the FIFA delegation pertained to the chairs to be put in the stadium.
"That issue also has been addressed and all the new chairs have already come. Yet another issue was beefing-up the fire fighting measures. We have addressed that also and new equipment is being installed. The issues with regard to the practice grounds has also been taken up and I wish to assert that, when they are here again for the final inspection, everything will be in place and the ball will roll here as per the plan," Moideen maintained.
FIFA, Yarza said, is considering this event in India as "one of the most important FIFA U-17 World Cups in the history of the tournament."
"India is not a host country, it's a host continent!"
"This obviously leads to many challenges, but it also brings numerous opportunities. At FIFA we are all very excited and consider this one of the most important FIFA U-17 World Cups in the history of the tournament.
"We can really touch the souls of millions of football fans in one single country, and help shape the future sporting interests of around 500 million kids, both boys and girls.
"The interest of the government, its Prime Minister, and state governments, guarantees great organisation of the event. So we know that the tournament will be a success and help to establish the future of football in India."
Not wanting to spill the beans on the big stars who will be gracing the country ahead of the mega soccer show, Yarza said fans will get to see known faces for sure.
"We are working on it! It's not easy to match the agenda of various football legends with the events but fans can be sure of one thing, there will be big names they will know."
Ticket sales will start next month with prices to be below Rs 100, as tournament director of the Local Organising Committee Javier Ceppi had said before.
"Next month we will start the first phase of ticket sales and by the end of May we will know all qualified teams. With the match schedule released just a few days ago, this will be the first opportunity for fans to get their tickets at discounted rates," Yarza said.
The draw for the U-17 World Cup will take place on July 7 in Mumbai. The World Cup will be played from October 6 to 28.
(Debayan Mukherjee can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org Sanu George can be contacted at email@example.com)