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India's football hierarchy hoping that hosting a global event will awaken a slumbering giant

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NEW DELHI - Praful Patel worked out a way to get India into an elite, global football competition for the first time.

As host of the Under-17 World Cup in 2017, India gets an automatic spot in the tournament.

OK, so it's like buying a ticket to get in. But it's a start. And it's part of the All India Football Federation president's grand plans for the game in the country of 1.2 billion people.

The AIFF has a blueprint for the future code named "Laqshya 2022." That translates to Aim 2022 — it's all about qualifying for the World Cup.

"We have to ensure football is the No. 1 sport in the country and for that to happen the platform has been laid," Patel said after his federation was awarded the rights to the 2017 tournament. "It will be a landmark event for India which will redefine Indian football."

As a politician and football administrator Patel knows well enough, though, that's it is one thing to be in the competition, and something entirely different to be competitive.

Heavy defeats in the youth tournament could have a detrimental impact on the development of football in India if players, fans and sponsors lose confidence in a country where cricket already is all-pervading,

There are millions of football followers in India, but it's a small percentage of the massive population. The game is becoming increasingly popular among a growing middle class, but many of those fans tend to follow the Premier League and other European competitions and aren't emotionally invested in local teams.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter once described India as the "sleeping giant" of international football, and urged the government to allocate land and build infrastructure.

It'll take more than a few nudges to wake up this giant. Ex-India coach Bob Houghton complained when he was in charge of the national team that the "country has zero football infrastructure," and there are other issues for the game locally.

The domestic I-League is dwarfed by cricket on the Indian sports landscape, despite extra funds flowing from a $140 million, 15-year marketing contract with IMG-Reliance.

Luring and retaining talented Indian athletes is difficult, with the top-earners making between $100,000-$150,000 a season in the I-League — a fraction of the salaries on offer in some other leagues around the world and in cricket's lucrative Twenty20 Indian Premier League.

The professional I-League hasn't dramatically improved the standard at the grassroots level, despite the presence of foreign players. And there are concerns that a franchise-based league being planned for later this year — along the lines of cricket's immensely popular IPL — could still be a flop even it attracts some star players.

Meanwhile, facilities are slowly improving. The Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi, which was rebuilt for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata and Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Chennai are among the handful of stadiums capable of staging international matches.

But the bigger, newer stadiums tend to be multi-discipline venues, so football has to share with cricket and field hockey — the two leading sports in the country — and often with track and field and other sports as well. So availability can be an issue.

A team from FIFA is visiting this week to assess the stadiums and tell organizers what is needed ahead of the 2017 tournament.

India is languishing in No. 156 spot in the FIFA rankings, but hasn't always been so far down the pecking order in international football.

India received a late invitation for the 1950 World Cup in Brazil after a withdrawal by some other Asian teams, but declined it due to financial and logistical problems at the time. The game was flourishing in the subcontinent in the 1950s and 60s — before cricket had gained such an imposing stature —but Indian football went into decline after winning the Asian Games gold medal in 1962.

That was at a time when field hockey was considered the top game, before cricket gained its imposing stature in this vast country where more than half the population is younger than 35.

Former India captain Bhaichung Bhutia, still the face of football in India, sees hosting the Under-17 World Cup as a crucial first step in really tapping into the youth market.

"We're very excited to host the Youth World Cup since India has not been so much in focus where youth development is concerned," Bhutia said. "I think the youth will become the prime focus."

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