Sport, interrupted: Founders of Assam's first Baby League take baby steps to regain lost momentum

Guwahati City Football Club

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the sporting economy to a shuddering halt. In India, the lockdown and its longer-term implications threaten the future of clubs, academies, leagues, support staff, all the people who help move the wheels of sport. In this series, ESPN looks across the country's sporting ecosystem, from the big clubs to the neighbourhood academies, to see how they've been affected.

On March 1, when the Greater Guwahati Baby League second season ended, its organisers were exhausted but delighted. The four "Facebook friends" -- KC, Sid, DRD and RD -- who created the Guwahati City Football Club (GCFC) knew that the ripple effects of hosting Assam's first Baby League in 2019 lay before their eyes.

Among the 800-plus tykes who competed in the weekly Baby League matches for four months, in four age groups (under-6, under-8, under-10 and under-12) were 27 girls. As the tournament progressed, the girls found their feet and were fearless in the mixed matches. In the under-6s, Aradhya Borpatra Gohain featured among the top three scorers. Under-12 midfielder Maariana Basumatary Todd's control when dribbling past boys, was a cause of much joy in the audience. The GCFC team couldn't stop grinning. In a fortnight or so, they would launch their women's team and, within six weeks, field them in the Assam state women's championship.

Today, the four men -- whose full names are Kaustab Chakraborty, Siddhartha Sankar Deka, Darick Ranjan Deka and Rangman Das -- are trying to get past three empty, emotionally-draining months. Apart from their entry into women's football, their to-do list for the post-Baby League was busy. Their under-21s were preparing for a local division event. GCFC was halfway through the process of applying for academy accreditation, contracts signed and a head of youth development as good as appointed. Then there were selections from their three rural football schools to be made for their academy's opening season next year.

The Covid-19 lockdown put every item on that to-do list, into what Siddhartha politely calls a 'pause.' In reality for a time, if felt like the air had been knocked out of GCFC's lungs.

Chakraborty, the events in charge, is the youngest of the four and, like Darick, quit his job before diving into creating GCFC. "We left our full-time jobs, came together to set up this and two years down the line, suddenly a virus comes in and everything is gloomy."

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The club was set up in 2017 to serve the grassroots football community of the city and from there of Assam state, which was devoid of a sustained league for ages. GCFC held summer camps, conducted a hugely popular Futsal festival, set up the state's first Baby League. These were young men from journalism, media, advertising, PR who sought to set up a Limited Liability Partnership company Sportscraft Management, a sports event management firm, whose revenues would fund their football projects.

Darick, the club's money man, says GCFC had grown "very silently and strategically" over the last three years. "We had convinced the corporates to sponsor our recent events. I'm just a little worried now that this kind of a pandemic situation will reduce their cost of promotional budget also and that can affect sponsorship on our events." It's not just the football that froze, so did Sportscraft Management's event organisation ventures in sports like badminton and basketball. The lockdown has "hampered" GCFC's "money flow."

Darick, also the most plain spoken of the four, adds, "To be very honest, we are clueless what is going to happen in one year, if you know, you can plan. Right now, we don't have an idea." He is anxious about a "scarcity of angel funding -- maybe investors are now diverting their minds to agriculture or wherever they see (as) more profitable things, rather than going for sports."

Post-lockdown, only Chakraborty and Darick could meet a couple of times to settle finances with their vendors. Given that the friends live in four corners of Guwahati, getting together to brainstorm has not been possible. It is the telephone and their WhatsApp group which is GCFC's new line of defence. Chakraborty has found a way to look ahead. "There is tension, but we have to find a way. Just the way we focussed our energy and formed this (club), we have to take it forward. We can't leave it midway."

Darick talks of football education as the next route to keep the local players and families hooked. The GCFC Football School in Guwahati has resumed academy classes on May 31. But activity in the three rural schools in Biswanath Charali, Goreshwar and Rowta, set up in tea estates and working class communities, is on hold. Online classes or Zoom sessions in the countryside, says Siddhartha, "is not easy, meaning they're impossible."

The onset of a new month, though, appears to have reignited the four friends' sense of mission. Siddhartha says GCFC may struggle to get audiences and funds for "about one or two years." The club's origins, he believes, gives them direction. "We started from zero and we have to start again from zero, but we are ready. Mankind is quite powerful, it will adjust and football is going to overcome." On a roll, he goes on, adding, "Premier League is going to start and Bundesliga has already started," before joining in the laughter he hears from his other two friends on our conference call.

"Nobody in our management is a crorepati, no one is a millionaire," he says. Yet this everyday quartet of football fans, who actually met on Facebook, "were able to do things that others didn't do in Assam for decades." Already, the GCFC Baby Leagues project has led to the Assam Police Radio Organisation setting up their own Baby League. GCFC have won two (u-8 and u-10) of four age-group sections in both leagues and six players from the Greater Guwahati Baby League were picked for Ranjit Bajaj's Minerva Academy outside Chandigarh.

There is much to celebrate and, Chakraborty says, "We have pushed the local football community. Now there are clubs approaching a level of marketing like what we were doing. They too are trying to bring their best. In a way it's a benefit for the whole community."

The ideas for the months ahead come in a flood. Their basketball and cricket centres partnering the Guwahati branch of sporting goods retailer Decathlon could be expanded to include other sports like badminton. Their Baby Leagues, Siddhartha says, can go "Pan-Assam, where district champions play each other at the state level."

Darick is talking about a marketing campaign to turn the negativity around the pandemic into a positive idea of using sport to "keep kids healthy and boost immunity." To expand the football schools from four to 10-15 in other parts of Assam as revenue sources. To hold their second Futsal Festival, set up a women's professional club championship in the state, to take their yet-to-be launched women's team into the women's I-League. To keep doing more. To lift the ISL trophy, even, Siddhartha says, to much chortling around him.

Covid-19 or not, GCFC and its founders are dreaming again.