Baby Leagues – Stories from across the country about Indian football’s grassroots intervention program
State federations across the country are fast adopting the ‘Baby Leagues’ model after the phenomenal success of the All India Football Federation’s pilot project in Meghalaya
The ‘Sleeping Giant’, ex-FIFA President Sepp Blatter once called Indian football. A country with a huge population yet to wake up the potential of football. Yet, despite this repeated rhetoric around ‘potential’ and multiple international football clubs entering the Indian market, the sport still fails to ignite the public imagination like cricket.
There are many well-documented reasons for cricket’s rise to prominence. The 1983 World Cup success coincided with the time TV and broadcast started in India. And in the 1990s, when TV became a household device, Sachin Tendulkar started his career. The audience had a hero – the best in the world – to follow and worship.
Football, however, despite being a part of the country’s history for more than a century, never found a similar wave they could ride on. The Indian team was arguably the best Asian side in the late 1950s and early 60s but the Federation failed to build on the success which paved the way to the current scenario where India are languishing at the bottom.
But in recent years, especially after the advent of the Indian Super League, a consolidated effort is underway to nurture football culture and also help aspiring, young footballers to find a place in professional football. The Baby Leagues, or the ‘Golden Baby Leagues’ (as rechristened by Minister of State Youth Affairs & Sports in July 2019 when he launched the 2019-20 Handbook along with football federation’s Technical Director Issac Doru), aims to be India’s answer to the problem. The football leagues, targeting kids of all gender in the age between 6 and 11, can be conducted by anyone as long as they are following All Indian Football Federation’s (AIFF) guidelines. In most places, the tournaments have been a major success with kids, parents and other stakeholders happy with the holistic education the leagues provide.
Asiaville is compiling a series of stories on Baby Leagues from multiple stakeholders across the country. This is a dynamic space and we will be uploading stories as and when we talk to people associated with the grassroots initiative.
The Meghalaya Story
The Meghalaya Baby League is 2018, a pilot edition started by the Meghalaya Football Association in partnership with AIFF and Tata Trusts, was a resounding success with 12 teams participating in a seven-month-long tournament. Over 1,600 boys and girls registered for the inaugural season which has pushed the state federation into launching a bigger season two where the matches will not just be played in Shillong. This year’s edition will again be back by AIFF, Tata Trusts and the Meghalaya government with the Baby League becoming the foundation for a 10-year plan that hopes to unearth talented footballers such as Eugeneson Lyngdoh from the state.
“We are launching the Meghalaya Under-15 league to facilitate the progression of Baby Leagues into a semi-professional/elite football. There will again be a district-level tournament conducted with the help of the Meghalaya government,” said Arki Nongrum, CEO, Meghalaya Football Association, said to Kalpanthu.
In Manipur’s Ukhrul, the story is different. Despite churning out quality footballers on a regular basis, the region continues to battle a lack of infrastructure and funds to give a platform for their young ones to learn football.
Photo: Worngachan Shatsang
“We don’t get any financial help from the government agencies or anything like that. We run the Baby Leagues and other tournaments through our hard-earned money and contributions from other well-wishers,” said Worngachan Shatsang, Head of Digital Content of Yarkhok FC (a professional club based in Ukhrul) and Media Manager for Ukhrul Basic Soccer Foundation.
Listen to Worngachan A Shatsang explain the challenges faced in Ukhrul