Baby Leagues: Shaping the Future of Indian Football?
Vibe to Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein's Kids (from Stranger Things) while reading this piece https://open.spotify.com/track/68gzf3AleOyt4NlKwpV0MY?si=TdFmfR9nRt-fjzCR1zgnVw
This article was written for and published in September 2020 Issue of Stadium Echo Magazine – a magazine started by Ritwik Khanna. The aim of the magazine is to uplift the coverage that Indian Football receives. Download the issue from here: https://www.stadiumecho.com/the-magazine and read other interesting articles that cover different facets of football in India.
A top-down approach for the betterment of a sport sounds bewitching, and to be just, it does hold certain merit. Exemplary players and miraculous teams can and do inspire multitudes. However, for such players and teams to not be a once-in-a-blue-moon phenomenon but a regular occurrence instead, a state or a nation requires an ecosystem that is conducive for discerning and developing players – a bottom-up approach.
For instance, in cricket – a monolith of a sport in India – the production of generational players has remained constant for decades, and the quality of the team has only increased with time. From the era of the Kapil Devs and the Sunil Gavaskars to the Sachin Tendulkars and the Rahul Dravids, and now to the MS Dhonis and the Virat Kohlis, the transition has been smooth and upwards.
The long-standing presence of an organized and/or semi-organized system of identifying and promoting cricketers from a very young age in most parts of the country has been instrumental in making cricket what it has become today. The scores of school, club, and association tournaments organized for wide-ranging age-groups almost on an everyday basis have been essential for the cause.
A telling survey conducted by Cint showed that 42% of the sampled population played cricket regularly in 2018; however, only 4.69% preferred playing football.
Crystallising a culture of football in the country should be the pressing priority for the sport if it is serious about its advancement, and the aim of entering the fascination of kids early in their childhood would be a stride towards that end.
In 2018, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) took a positive step in that very direction when, in association with FIFA’s development programme – FIFA Forward – it launched the Golden Baby Leagues (GBLs) for kids between the ages of 6 to 12.
Explaining the rationale behind his initiative, Kushal Das, the AIFF General Secretary, said: “The formative years of a child have always been the bedrock of a successful footballing culture. The AIFF is now stressing to popularise the sport among the kids. We aim to have every kid playing football, especially from ages U-6 to U-12. The more they play, the more Indian football will benefit.”
Isac Doru, the AIFF Technical Director, shed more light on the subject, and told PTI: “We needed to create a competitive environment in which the players are developing their creativity, self-expression, passion of the game and discovering the value of friendship throughout the team. That was the idea of these Baby Leagues.”
Recently, Sunando Dhar, the AIFF CEO of Leagues, provided further insight into the role of the Golden Baby Leagues from a scouting perspective. “We intentionally tried to lower the age. Catch them young and help them grow. We started at the U-13 level and we realized that we have to start much earlier.
“This is the age we want players to start playing the game and taking it seriously. The Golden Baby Leagues project is an ideal platform for scouting talent, which will go hand-in-hand with the AIFF youth leagues structure already in place beginning from the Sub Junior League.
“If we look at the developed football countries by the time the players are 13, you will know whether they will be able to make it professionally or not. Out here, the likes of Bhaichung Bhutias and Sunil Chhetris start playing football seriously from 15,” he said in an online chat on grassroots development of football in India.
The response that the GBLs have received is impressive. In their initial year, over 21,000 children participated, over 21,000 matches were conducted, and more than 5,300 registered teams featured across the seven age-group categories, viz. U-6s to U-12s. According to AIFF’s figures, these numbers hiked considerably in 2019. More than 43,000 kids played in the GBLs that were organized in 21 states by over 100-plus operators.
The format of these leagues has been structured with delicacy, keeping in mind the capacities and capabilities of kids from different age-brackets. The U-6s play three-a-side matches which are divided into four quarters of six minutes each with a two-minute interval in between. For U-7s and U-8s, teams of four or five each play a game of two halves of 12 minutes with a four-minute break at half time. The number of players in each team can rise up to 11 in the age-bracket of U-11 and U-12, and they play a game of 50 minutes with an eight-minute intermission at halfway.
Vis-à-vis baby leagues, India and the AIFF have taken a leaf out of Uruguay’s book – the most successful footballing country in the world, per capita. Unlike India, the population of Uruguay is merely around 3.45 million but there are many similarities regarding certain economic realities of the two nations.
However, La Celeste are a commanding force in world football and an endless pipeline of world-class talent, for which Baby Futbol (fittingly) gets a lot of credit. Every weekend, around 60,000 children between the ages of 6-13 play organized football in Uruguay.
Óscar Tabárez, the fabled head coach of Uruguay National Team known as El Maestro, said in a video posted by FIFA TV in 2014: “I can't imagine Uruguayan football becoming as good as it is if Baby Futbol didn't exist. Every footballer in the current team played it, as did those from all the important teams, going back to the 90s and before. (Enzo) Francescoli played Baby Futbol, (Jose) Batista played Baby Futbol. They all did. Paolo Montero came from Baby Futbol.”[vii] Adding to this list, superstars like Luis Suarez, Jose Gimenez, Lucas Torreira, and Diego Laxalt have also been shaped by baby football.
Roberto Pastoriza, president of the federation that oversees baby football leagues in the region of Montevideo, commented: “Many of these leagues are linked to professional teams and are the source of their players. Many professional teams help financially, covering some of the leagues expenses, especially in matches related to the representative teams. This is where you find the best players of each league.”
Seeds of a similar trend are also being sown in India. Although many big clubs have set up their own grassroots set-ups, they have now started promoting the GBLs as well. ISL clubs like Odisha FC and Jamshedpur FC have become the torchbearers, while smaller clubs like Guwahati City FC are also actively encouraging the cause.
However, it must be acknowledged that India has only begun the strenuous, long journey which Uruguay has championed. Baby Futbal has been functional and successful for decades in the Latin American nation.
Going stagnant is a major threat to an endeavor that doesn’t yield instant success. For the GBLs to take charge of making structural changes and harvesting a culture of football, it is necessary that the stakeholders not only continuously nurture this project by injecting money, effort, and infrastructure, but also ensure that this initiative remains an evolving, dynamic one.
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Picture Credits: sportstar.thehindu.com