Coca-Cola Journey India spoke to Joy Bhattacharjya, Project Director, FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017 on the build-up to India’s biggest global football event. As the government and FIFA try to popularise football among school children and youth, he says that some states have seen surprisingly good results.

Q: In a cricket crazy country, how easy has it been to drive the Mission XI Million?

Joy Bhattacharya: Not difficult at all. We have always stressed that India has more than enough space for more than one sport and there is no conflict with cricket. Football also requires so little to play that children get into the game very quickly.

Q: The effort is to mobilise 11 million children across 30 cities. What has been the response in some, traditionally, ‘non-football locations’?

JB: We have been amazed at the reaction at many centres not really associated with football. Bihar has been amazing, Odisha also had very well attended seminars and the response in Rajasthan was really inspiring. There are also a lot of football hotbeds that are not so well known as they do not have big leagues now, but a lot of grass-roots football is already happening. Kashmir, Punjab and Hyderabad are some examples.

Q: What fundamental changes are planned at the grassroots level so that football attracts more talent?

JB: We are targeting the ‘gatekeepers’—schools, teachers, sports instructors and coaches. Our belief is that children always want to play, the gate keepers must give them all the opportunity possible.

 Q: How are state governments going to play a decisive role in executing the idea? Are there concrete steps that some states are taking?

JB: Sport is finally a state subject. We have had the maximum impact and response when the state governments have proactively worked with us. Many of them are aligning with the All India Football Federation (AIFF) grass roots programmes in the future.

Q: While the effort of FIFA, AIFF is important, is there enough interest among companies to associate with the sport in India, particularly at the grassroots level?

JB: There is definitely more interest in companies. The ground reach Mission XI Million was also an important factor for sponsors like Bank of Baroda. We need to have clear, transparent and easily measurable factors for companies to put their money into grass roots sport.