Extending the horizons of football whilst providing budding talent an opportunity to play football in a competitive environment, the All India Football Federation’s effort to introduce Baby Leagues in various states has engulfed the nation recently. At the lowest level, there are no goalkeepers — just two posts on each end of the playing field. Up the age ladder, the jamboree gets replaced with the game’s symmetry: defence lines get distinct, skills come to the forefront, and so does competition. AIFF rolled out a grassroots programme for the first time in 2008, with Mizoram featuring as the first state to conduct a grassroots course in October of that year. In subsequent years, similar projects were launched in Bengal, Chandigarh, Maharashtra, Manipur, Assam, Goa and Kerala.
A pilot league was started in Mumbai and Pune in 2017. The first Meghalaya edition is being organized by the state’s Football Association, in collaboration with technical partners AIFF and main sponsor, Tata Trusts. In July, Bengaluru started their version, and talks were on for an Orissa Baby League as well. In the Northeast, Mizoram, also hosts its own, the Young Legends League in Champai— an independent initiative between the Mizoram Football Association and a private organisation, not related to the AIFF league.
After the successful launch of Baby Leagues in Meghalaya under the MOU between Tata Trusts and Meghalaya Football Association supported by the AIFF, WIFA introduced the league in Pune, Maharashtra and Bangalore. Manipur and Punjab will adopt the Baby League pattern in the coming months.
The Baby League in Meghalaya has 12 teams: Wahlakhiat Bulls, Nongthymmai Scorpions, JNS Jaguars, among others. Apart from their assigned animal icons, team names include the school, institution or locations they represent.
An event that runs for six months, the Baby League is longer than the established ISL and I-Leagues, the top two divisions of professional football in the country. Each team plays more than forty games during the course of the league.
For most, the Baby League is more than a fun game of football. It is about equal opportunity too — be it in terms of gender, economy or just representation.
Hero Indian Super League Club Mumbai City FC became the first club to sign the AIFF-Baby League Pact along with Mumbai District Football Association and WIFA, cementing their commitment to the growth of grassroots game in the region.
“It was a great idea and a super initiative by the AIFF to start the Baby League”, said AIFF’s Technical Director Savio Medeira. “It was the need of the hour for our kids to develop in a more realistic way and give them the platform and competition, which was missing.”
“Currently, kids in these age groups get to play only a handful of competitive games in a year. With the AIFF Baby League, we expect them to play many more games every year,” Mumbai City FC official Dinesh Nair said in a statement. “Apart from the kids, this initiative also targets the development of coaches in the state and another important group — the parents. We aim to organise regular workshops and seminars for parents also so that they understand the avenues that football opens up for their kids and encourage them,” he added.
The Baby League in Mumbai, which is part of a long term initiative of the All India Football Federation (AIFF), will see participation from as many as 72 teams and 1,440 players. The participating teams and academies will create U-8, U-10 and U-12 teams and will play against each other on weekends in a home and away format.
For the first time in the city of joy, the grassroots development programme has been taken seriously after AIFF officially launched the Baby Leagues this season. A Sports Events company based in Kolkata namely Federation De Sports Association are one of the Baby League operators in Kolkata. Their module consists teams of age groups U8, U10 and U12. Each age group will be divided into 8 teams and the league is going to take place with a total of 24 teams. Each team will play 7 home and 7 away matches. The U-8 players will play 7-a-side games with 20 minutes per half, the U-10 players will play 6-a-side games with 25 minutes per half, and the U-12 players will play 5-a-side games with 30 minutes per half. The Baby League in Kolkata starts from 18th November till 19th February. Each team has a mere registration fee of 3000/- and the venue for the league will be in South Kolkata area.
Everyone is working hard to make this event a huge success and instil the footballing culture in Bengal’s young talents through an organised and professional experience every year.
For Indian football to succeed, a development model that ‘catches them young’ is the only way forward. Every ground in India, where the Baby Leagues are going on, amidst the delightful squeals of children at play, there are some sure signs of genius.