The All India Football Federation's (AIFF) baby leagues project is likely to see the first pilot run in Mumbai in early July, more than four months later than it was originally meant to be unveiled as a step to increase participation in football at an earlier age and to encourage greater round-the-year engagement with the sport across the country. The project was conceived and driven by Richard Hood, AIFF's head of youth development, and Savio Medeira, the federation's technical director.
Hood, who told ESPN that he had made 15 visits and presentations to clubs, state associations and various stakeholders, said a constant refrain had been about having official sanction and support of the AIFF. "People expect money from federations, but that need not be the approach," he said. "For instance, if you charge the kids Rs 20 per game, and register 600 of them across age groups, you will have enough money to cover all costs. The organisers still want children to pay a hefty sum at the time of registration."
Hood also said that clubs and federations have been keen on exclusivity, and their existing programmes for grassroots development have focused more on numbers than the length of the programme.
The document that Medeira and Hood have taken to prospective organisers is a 35-page dossier, which includes details such as the league model, productivity points (for organisers), organisational undertaking, age cut-off as per age category and even funding models. It also has a provision for a website and an app which will make everything accessible for both organisers and players, but the latter is still in the process of being developed.
"We have been to Indian Super League (ISL) clubs, state federations and the whole format, including the website and app, is under process," Medeira told ESPN. "One of the problems has been that when we go to anybody, the first thing that they ask is what kind of financial support they would be getting."
Hood felt one of the problems was that clubs and federations were looking at big corporates to sponsor the league. "You should be going to shopkeepers and small business for supporting a team rather than a big corporate entity," he said. "For instance, [Mizoram-based I-League second-division team] Chanmari FC's Under-12 team has six sponsors, all local shops. They are able to provide enough funds to cover players' boots, coaches' remuneration, hiring of grounds, transport."
The question of funds struck a chord with former India captain and Football Players' Association of India (FPAI) president Renedy Singh, who told ESPN he will seek out the support of Manipur chief minister Biren Singh, himself a former footballer, to support the baby leagues.
"Between 1996 and 2011, if you saw the composition of the Indian team, there would always be six or seven Manipuris, but that number has gone down since 2011," he said. "This is because there was no back-up plan and we just assumed that players would keep coming off the assembly line. When I started out at Under-12, my performances got me admission to the Tata Football Academy. I don't see those kinds of avenues for children now. It is a global trend that a young player should be playing close to 80, 90 or 100 competitive matches in a year to improve. Here, we are still getting only 12 or 14 at best."
Hood said that the best responses among the state associations have come from those in West Bengal (IFA), Mizoram and the Western India Football Association (WIFA). The ISL clubs that have expressed an interest in organising the league, according to Hood and Medeira, include FC Pune City, NorthEast United FC and Mumbai City FC.
IFA might become the first prominent association after WIFA to roll out the baby league, as secretary Utpal Ganguli confirmed. "We already have a nursery league, which has 82 teams across Under-12 and Under-14 that play for about six months. We are happy to expand it and rebrand it to support Indian football. We will finalise the plan after monsoons," he said.