In Northeast India, where football is like opium for the masses, a group of children are kickstarting Meghalaya’s very own baby football league. The Meghalaya Baby League is a league format football competition for ages 4 to 13 – an all-kids’ affair with non-stop action. The really young ones waddle after the ball in a swarm, kicking at will. At that 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.
A report in the The Indian Express stated that the Baby League, brainchild of the All India Football Federation (AIFF), is a league format football competition for ages 4 to 13. A pilot league was started in Mumbai and Pune last year. The first Meghalaya edition is being organised by the State’s Football Association, in collaboration with technical partners All India Football Federation (AIFF) and main sponsor, Tata Trusts. Later this month, Bengaluru is expected to start their version, and talks are 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.
On the morning of July 14 last, Meghalaya’s debut Baby League had its fourth match-day — an all-kids’ affair with non-stop action in Shillong’s Jawaharlal Nehru Sports Complex. The report quoted Arki Nongrum, 31-year-old CEO of the Meghalaya Football Association (MFA) as saying, “What was lacking for grassroots football players was a competitive platform. The Baby League provides this platform for kids at a young age. If you train each and every day but you do not play anyone competitively, it makes no sense.”
So, on every Saturday and select school holidays, dressed in jersey colours inspired by squads around the world, the “babies” play ball in Shillong, capital of Meghalaya. The Baby League 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.
Matches are shorter than the standard duration: 10 minutes per half for the youngest age group while the teenagers slug it out for 25 minutes each half. An event that will run 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 play more than 40 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.
“It is mandatory for each team to register at least 10 per cent female players,” says Arki, adding that they hope to establish a dedicated all-girls league in the future. On Saturday’s game, the senior team (ages 12-13) for
JNS Jaguars was dominated by girls. Marilyn Rapthap, whose 13-year-old daughter was starting for the Jaguars, says, “Such opportunities for young athletes never existed before. I think this league will really help children develop their talent.”
Meghalaya’s Baby League is turning out to be much more than a photo op for adorable moments. Arki stresses on the long-term benefits of the initiative: “It ties into a much larger picture. Apart from giving footballers a competitive platform to hone their skills, we hope to lay the foundation for a vibrant sports culture by involving parents and communities,” he says.