Participants during the final match of Meghalaya Baby League pose for a photograph

Shillong: The catchphrase, ‘Catch ‘em young and watch ‘em grow’, probably best fits the idea behind Baby League, a novel league-format football competition for ages 4 to 13.

What rolled as a pilot league last year in Mumbai and Pune, was soon picked up by the Meghalaya Football Association (MFA) when it kick-started its own Baby League edition with Tata Trusts as the main sponsor.

More than 1,300 matches were played in the past seven months, participated by 1,000 children from the state.

“People in Northeast have always been ardent football fans. Now with the Baby League in town, they couldn’t be happier,” said Arki Nongrum, CEO of MFA, while talking about the response the event has garnered on the ground. “The Baby League, owing to its novel format, ran for over seven months providing enough learning time for the players to pick up the necessary skills.

Teams have played over 1,300 matches during the season. However, to match the bite-sized stars, play time was set to 10 minutes per half for the youngest lot while the teenagers were to sweat it out for 25 minutes each half,” added Nongrum.

“There had been as many as 200 registrations for some of the teams in the debut season. Eager parents religiously brought their wards for practice sessions and were in full attendance for every match. The excitement was evident as they encouraged their little ones from the sidelines on the final day,” he added.

Almost 60% of the 12 Baby League teams were from Shillong while a sizable 40% came from the towns and villages as far as 60 km away. The team kits are fashioned around their spirit animals and christened after the places/ institutions or the business houses who sponsor them like Wahlakhiat Bulls, Nongthymmai Scorpions, JNS Jaguars, Touchline NE Cubs, ENE Falcons and Langsning Greenergy Lions, among others. The final day saw the Langsning Greenergy Lions emerging as the overall champions. At the awards ceremony that followed, ENE Falcons were named the ‘Best Disciplined Team’. There were also ‘Best Player’ awards in each age category.

The trophies and awards were given away by the chief guest, Peter Dkhar, commissioner and secretary of sports and youth affairs; Tata Trusts’ Biswanath Sinha; Centre for Microfinance & Livelihood’s Partho Patwari and MFA president Larsing Ming Sawyan.

“This programme has been noticed nationally and I’m sure it will continue in the coming years,” Dkhar said. “The government will continue giving its support and I look forward to other tournaments next year that will give opportunities to our talented youth.”

“Children need to grow out of their shells and spread their wings and the Baby League provides them with that opportunity. This is a bonus as nowadays kids are engrossed with gadgets and phones and family bonding is minimal. I am so happy to bring them here, support and cheer them on,” remarked one excited parent during the final match of the Baby League on the turf of the Jawaharlal Nehru Sports Complex.

The future of The Baby League looks very promising. With the support from national organisations like Tata Trusts and the prominent local institutions chipping in, this endeavour is bound to help Meghalaya produce football talent of international level.

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