Absurdity of Conclusions From U-17 World Cup Attendances

Monday, 20 November 2017|Akarsh Sharma

It has been over three weeks since India’s first global football tournament, the 2017 Fifa Under-17 World Cup, ended in style. In front of a reported 66,684 spectators at the iconic Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata, the England U-17 national team, undoubtedly the best in the tournament, were crowned the world champions following a remarkable come-from-behind 5-2 defeat of Spain in the final. Brazil, the nationwide crowd favourite, finished in third position while India, having qualified directly as hosts, suffered three defeats but showed signs of encouragement.

The India edition of the tournament was an enjoyable three-week football festival. It lived up to the U-17 World Cup’s reputation as the most entertaining of all Fifa global tournaments, where dull encounters are uncommon and optimism of youth conquers the fear of failure—neatly summed up by England overcoming a 0-2 deficit in a memorable final. The U-17 World Cup showcased a level of football that wasn’t seen before on Indian soil and thus attracted record-breaking crowds, though stadium experiences continued to be well below expected standard and, again, a marquee sporting event in India was used by a few individuals and organizations means to further their own agendas over collective interests.

Fifa President Gianni Infantino flew in to declare this World Cup a “resounding success” (not that a sitting president would ever do otherwise) and announced that India is a “footballing nation now”—a claim so tall you’re almost certain Donald Trump had tweeted it a while back.

As per the LOC’s reported figures, and ‘reported’ being a key word here, the U-17 World Cup in India had registered a total attendance of over 1.34 million spectators across six venues and 52 matches. This meant that India has set a new record for a youth-level Fifa competition by bettering Colombia’s 2011 U-20 World Cup figure of 1.30 million fans and China’s tally of 1.23 million spectators in the inaugural U-17 edition in 1985—though it must be noted that China’s average attendance of 38,469 over 32 matches in a 16-team event was much higher than India’s number of 25,906 in a 24-team competition. It must also be noted that it was easier to fudge the numbers in 1985 than it is now.

Analysing attendance figures would normally be a waste of column inches, or the word limit in this case, but the extraordinary conclusions which have been drawn from these numbers make this discussion a necessity. It isn't an uncommon practice globally to inflate attendance figures at sporting events. For a metric that is significantly linked with an event’s perceived success, it is oddly in total control of the event’s organisers.

Attendances serve as a great promotional tool to drive excitement around the event, and it isn’t any different in India. Just look at the Indian Super League (ISL) which made news around the world for becoming the "fourth-most attended league" in world football. The ISL did everything in its power to get people into stadia in its inaugural season--it's the most effective promotional tool.

“It's been announced that 13,225 was the total attendance,” Wisden India notes of the U-17 World Cup match between Japan and Honduras in Guwahati, “although tickets were never scanned by any electronic device while entering the stadium.”Out of the three times, I had entered the Salt Lake Stadium during the World Cup, my ticket was scanned only twice.

Attendance of a double-header, in particular, is a dubious area since these are recorded . These are back-to-back matches that can be attended with one ticket. For instance, after England beat Chile 4-0 in a 5 PM match in Kolkata, a significant chunk of the official number of 46,154 fans left the stadium (there is no re-entry allowed) yet the figure for the Iraq-Mexico match at 8 PM is 55,800. A quick glance at double-header figures of previous tournaments confirms that the attendances of the second game are nearly always equal to the first, and are occasionally higher.

Besides all this, the attendances in Delhi were much higher than usual because of government's interference. Busloads of children from government schools were ferried to the stadium to make India's Delhi games seem like a "resounding success". What they certainly did was make the hospitality a resounding failure -- there was a scarcity of food and water and the planning was atrocious.

Meanwhile, to show surprise over Kolkata's attendances is just an indirect insult to a Kolkata football fan's famed intelligence. Fans in Kolkata turn out in huge numbers for domestic games, they discuss football over coffee, breathe Brazil and Argentina during the World Cup, then why was it a surprise that the city turned out in huge numbers to watch the highest quality of football ever played on Indian soil? That Kolkata was able to fill the stadium in two days after the semi-final game was shifted from Guwahati was a clear indicator of the city's booming love for the game as opposed to any marketing muscle of the LOC. Schedule a game in Kolkata and you'll see numbers.

For India to be called a "footballing nation" on the basis of such attendances is both bizarre and incorrect. India lacks the basics of football - heck, we don't even have a calendar and announce leagues on the fly, a few weeks in advance.

We are far from being a "footballing nation" but that matters little to those who visit India for a few weeks and then take the Fifa bandwagon to some other land.