"Ria, Ria, pass here," the shouts seemed to be coming from every direction.
Ria deftly ignores both the cries for a pass and an onrushing defender. She advances forward before picking out a team-mate in the red shirt with a precise pass. But the ball is soon lost in a tangle of red shirts prompting Ria to raise her hands in the air in frustration.
13-year-old Ria is a defender playing for Goal Football School, a football club based in Bengaluru, in her first league game. It is the opening day of the mixed-gender youth football league - Double Pass Development League - which kicked off at the HAL Sports Club in Bengaluru.
"I prefer to play up-front or on the wing but our coach is trying out different formations so I had to play at centre-back in this game. I am the only girl on the team at present but I can manage playing in any position the coach wants me to," Ria says, after Goal Football School lost its first league game against Austin Town FC 10-3.
But the loss did little to discourage Ria or her uncle who was present at the stadium for the game. "She was around 5 years old when she started watching football on the television during the 2010 FIFA World Cup. She then started to play football with the children in her apartment and around six months ago, began playing the sport professionally," Sathish Sebastian, Ria's uncle, explains.
"We want her to keep playing as long as she is happy", Sathish adds, even as he cheers Ria on from pitchside.
In June 2019, Double Pass, a Belgian-based football consultancy group which aims to develop football talent systems began a football league in Bengaluru. The league featured children in the under-7, under-9 and under-11 categories. Following the launch of the 'Baby League,' the company set its sights on introducing league competition for children in the under-14 and under-16 age categories.
Competition and learning for girls
Both the ‘Baby Leagues’ (under-7, under-9, and under-11) and ‘Youth League’ (under 14, under-16) under are mixed-gender leagues in which girls and boys play alongside each other. "We wanted it to be a mixed gender league because at this young age level, girls and boys can play together and it can be a learning environment for girls to get into the game," says Sarthak Dubey, Director of DoublePass in India.
Across all age categories, there are a total of 41 girls playing in the leagues. Even though this is a fraction of the 800 children registered, the organisers are encouraged by this and believe that the number of girls taking part will only increase. “We have a few girls playing in our leagues and when other girls see this or see photographs of these girls on social media, they will be interested to join,” says Sarthak.
The leagues pit football teams from Bengaluru, including some of Bengaluru's established football academies, against each other in weekly matches.
In all, there are 57 teams including Bengaluru FC, Barça Academy, Bhaichung Bhutia Football School, Bangalore City FC, Roots Football School, BOCA Juniors, and Austin Town FC, which are known for their strong presence in the footballing community in the city. Even Bengaluru FC, the Indian Super League (ISL) club based in the city, has registered teams in the under-7, under-9 and under-11 age groups.
A total of 754 games will be played across six months in all age categories. The leagues are also recognised by the Karnataka State Football Association (KSFA) and approved by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) under its player development initiative – Baby Leagues.
The 'Baby Leagues' are now in the knockout stages and the quarter finals began on January 11. The final is scheduled for January 19. This is the first time DoublePass is piloting a league in an Indian city having worked with football academies in the English Premier League and German Bundesliga previously.
Regular competition to identify talent
According to the organisers, the leagues in Bengaluru create regular competitive football, considered critical for the development of players at a young age. ”In developed football markets like Europe and South America, competitive football starts very early for children. In India, there are plenty of academies training children but without competitive matches, the learning is incomplete. With a league like this, children and coaches know that they will train to play competitive league matches regularly. The more competitive games they play, the better they will become technically, tactically, physically and mentally,” adds Sarthak.
His views are echoed by coaches and parents of children taking part in the league. "This league is a revelation in many ways. This allows coaches and parents to assess the progress of their children because of the regular weekly matches," says Amit Kumar Dubey, whose son Abheesht (13) plays alongside Ria for Goal Football School.
Football coaches in the city point out the duration of the tournament is longer than tournaments or leagues previously held between teams in the city. "Previously, there were tournaments and even some league competitions in Bengaluru but they did not run for 6 months or in an efficient manner like this. This allows coaches to work with players against familiar opponents and test their skills over a long period,” says Maheshwar Singh, coach of First Touch Football Academy based in Whitefield. According to coaches, this allows them to assess each player and helps instill team ethics and discipline in young footballers.
With this initiative, Sarthak and Rajat hope to unite Bengaluru’s grassroots football culture by introducing a professional league system to help identify football talents in the city. “When we get these teams together, there is so much diversity. Teams get to play with opponents of different skills and we can already see the improvement from Week 1 to Week 15. It is a continuous process to sustain this every year and hopefully become professional footballers in the future,” adds Sarthak.
All Photographs: Doublepass