Arsene Wenger’s mantra for India: aim for U-17 World Cup first

All India Football Federation signs agreement with FIFA for centralised academy in Bhubaneswar

On Indian football, Arsene Wenger said: The world of football is moving forward, and 20 per cent of the world's population cannot be left behind" (photo: AIFF)
On Indian football, Arsene Wenger said: The world of football is moving forward, and 20 per cent of the world's population cannot be left behind" (photo: AIFF)
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Gautam Bhattacharyya

The arrival of Arsene Wenger, the man they call ‘The Professor’, could not have been better-timed to lift the mood of Indian football buffs. The Blue Tigers were deflated by Qatar in a 2026 World Cup qualifier with the Frenchman in attendance on 21 November, while head coach Igor Stimac has also provided a reality check about expectations from the Asian Cup finals in January. 

The upbeat mood among India’s football followers had nosedived a fair bit in recent months, and this is where the legendary coach of Arsenal, now chief of global football development at FIFA, wanted them to be patient and focus on the youth.

‘’The goal should be to qualify for the Under-17 World Cup, not as hosts, but by qualifying for the main rounds. If we embark on the junior development programme right now, it’s possible,’’ he said at a media conference in Mumbai following the signing of a memorandum of understanding between FIFA and the All India Football Federation (AIFF) for a centralised football academy. 

Wenger certainly did his homework on Indian football, since both the boys' and girls’ teams had played in respective U-17 World Cups in India as hosts a few years ago, and looked out of sorts. In a watershed move to boost youth talent, FIFA will be hosting the U-17 cup every year from 2025, and this is the opportunity the Frenchman wants India to capitalise on. 

Speaking from Mumbai after Wenger's briefing, AIFF acting secretary-general M Satyanarayan said they have zeroed in on the 2026 U-17 World Cup as a goal for qualification after a meeting with Wenger and his team. ‘’We have identified 30 Under-13 boys for the purpose, who will be training at the new academy in Bhubaneswar, while others will be added,’’ the senior official said. 

Wenger, meanwhile, said: “You have strengths and weaknesses, 1.5 billion people is a huge number, and that makes for huge potential. It is important for our countries to show their strengths. Sports creates jobs all over the world. India is booming economically, and you have the chance to develop the most popular sport in the world. The clubs are the key for you to develop the players, and we need them to help the country develop on the footballing front,” he said. 


In a unique observation, Wenger said: ‘’Let’s say a boy is born in India and on the same day, another one is born in Paris and Sao Paulo. Now, they are not born footballers, but will develop into one when they are around 15 years old. Hence, the country which has the best junior development programme will shine the brightest.’’ 

Is India still the sleeping giant of football, as the cliché goes? Wenger begged to differ: “The giant is here and is heading for hiding. No more sleeping here in this house. That’s how the AIFF is now. This creates a lot of possibilities. 

“The world of football is moving forward, and 20 per cent of the world's population cannot be left behind. So, you have to come on board and move forward. We can all see that the giant of football is awake, and we will definitely see some football development,” he added.

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