The All India Football Federation (AIFF) is expected to drastically increase the number of Indians getting introduced to competitive football in their formative years, with plans for a 'baby league' set to be finalised by March this year.
The league is the brainchild of AIFF's Head of Youth Development Richard Hood, who is being helped in this endeavour by Savio Medeira, former Salgoacar midfielder and national team coach, who took over as the Technical Director of the AIFF following the departure of Australian Scott O'Donell earlier this month.
"The idea is to have children start playing football seriously from the age of five, six, seven or eight, just the way that it happens in developed football nations," Medeira told ESPN. "There will be no specific process of selection; if anything we want more and more kids to play maximum number of matches. Even if they play one match every weekend, you are looking at a minimum of 40 games in a year, which is a lot of football at such a young age."
At present, India has representative national teams in age groups starting from under-14, while the I-League has a version involving under-18 as well as under-16 teams competing within it. Whether the 'baby league' can spur greater participation and space for more age-group events could depend on the response to the first edition of the league.
"What we (in Indian football) lack the most is competition, and consequently good distribution of knowledgeable coaches. We will identify a few hot spots for football around the country and then we will ensure there are better competitions from a younger age group there," said Medeira.
Improving the prevalent standards of football will take time, according to Medeira, but India must cash in on the positives of the stints of Dutchman Rob Baan and O'Donell, his predecessors as Technical Director. "Rob and Scott have started with the process of coach education, and I will also be evaluating how best to instruct my coaches to keep improving," he said.
Speaking of the 'hot spots', Medeira confirmed that these football centres will be among those that already have a presence in Indian football. With the I-League and Indian Super League (ISL) now taking the game to 16 Indian states -- eight states of the North-East, Karnataka and Punjab among them -- this could mean a huge spread of cities and centres with existing football infrastructure will come under the ambit of grassroots development.
Medeira also indicated that part of his job will include ensuring expansion of the Indian Women's League, which had its first season conclude recently with six teams playing the final stage, so that women's football can also spread beyond the existing centres.
"The process of improving is not something we can plan for a year or two. Even the idea of the 'baby league' is something that will not produce results overnight. The expectation is that in five to six years, we should have a decent base of young players."
2017 will also be significant with the FIFA Under-17 World Cup being held in India, and while Medeira agreed that hosting the event will be good for the game, his concern is about the legacy and how well it will be utilised. "The key for me is that we must continue with the efforts we are putting in towards the under-17 team and make sure their development doesn't come to a halt," said Medeira. "There is such a push on improving sporting infrastructure and so much good exposure around the world. We must make sure we capitalise on this."