New Delhi: In Mizoram's Champhai district, football is no more just a recreational activity. Potential legends as young as 6 years of age 'kick-start' their careers with a slice of life lessons. At the Young Legends League (YLL), gender and class biases are being shunned to give way to community development through the 'beautiful game'.
It takes 12 hours to reach Champhai from Lengpui Airport, Aizawl despite the distance being only 184 kilometres. A heavy stone road journey leads to this 3,185 SQ KM village with a population of 127,660. Located at the borders of Myanmar, Champhai has been home to footballers like Lalruatthara, Lalthuammawia Ralte, L. Robert and Lalchhawnkima and now, the district looks to have its own little champions.
Young Legends League was launched two years ago in Champhai district of Mizoram in U-8, U-11 and U-13 age categories to use football as a tool to facilitate the holistic development of kids in the district and develop the concept of baby leagues. Last year, the league also made its way into Bishnupur district of Manipur.
While various other baby leagues have started for the development of football, YLL remains dedicated to building a positive culture in the society by the means of football.
Mizoram is known for its football culture and so, it was a perfect idea to embark on this developmental journey with football at its heart. "Champhai is a troubled region of sorts but the football culture is there. So now with football as an outlet, they do the other things that should be done too - go to school, stay fit and stay away from social evils," Varun Achreja, one of the YLL founders, said.
600 kids across Champhai and Bishnupur have had their lives impacted by the programme so far and Ramit Singh Chimni, another member of the YLL founding committee, says they are committed to the league in Champhai for at least 10 years.
YLL engages kids for five to six months through weekly games of football.
It's a Saturday festival for the people of Champhai where the U-8s, U-11s and U-13s of the districts play competitive football. Such is the format of the league that all the kids involved across age groups stay in the ground for all the games, which makes it a spectator-filled ground.
"YLL has had a great influence in Champhai among young children who are interested in football. It has now become easier to be a professional footballer with the help of YLL as it gives them the right guidance to fulfil their dreams if they play to the best of their ability," H Lalchhuanawma, brother of Lalrinpuia who was scouted by Bengaluru FC, said.
HELPING THE COMMUNITY EVOLVE
YLL is a gender-neutral league where girls and boys play together in a single team. The founders of the league say that the development of girls is faster than boys till the age of 12 and that girls are in fact stronger early on. They believe if the girls are to become better footballers, they should be allowed to play with the boys and evolve as people and players.
"We told them to try and have as many girls as they could in the teams but in the first year, we did not have a lot of girl participation, just 7-8 girls. But one of those girls scored 34 goals and was competing for the top scorer award in the U-8 category. So looking at her, the participation grew. It was an organic process," Chimni shared.
The YLL organisers make sure that while the kids are playing football, they are learning the basics of life as well. From keeping their environment clean to developing healthy habits, the kids are taught everything.
All the participating kids know they cannot smoke if they want to be playing in the league. If they are caught smoking, they are not allowed to play. Chimni said that they've had cases where the kids came after a couple of months and said that they won't smoke and want to play. "We need to make sure that the message is sent out and be certain about it. The objective is more than just football, it is about touching their lives," Chimni added.
"The movement of YLL is leading the kids to escape from drug abuse which is prevalent among teenagers here. Being involved in a sport makes sure that the children are taking good care of their body," C. Chawngthansangi, mother of Lalrinmawia who was scouted by Bhaichung Bhutia Football School, said.
Chimni also said they have a tie-up with a nutritionist in Delhi who went to Champhai and explained to them about nutrition and even taught them how to use their local produce to improve nutrition levels.
Through YLL, seven kids have been scouted by Bengaluru FC, Reliance Foundation Young Champs and Bhaichung Bhutia Football School but Achreja says along with providing opportunities to the kids, they want to make sure that they do right by them. "We don't want to uproot them too young," Achreja said.
While scouts have shown interest in the 8-year-olds and 9-year-olds playing in the league, Achreja said they prefer kids 12 years of age or older leave the district to get professionally trained, even though the final decision lies with the parents. "The parents also look up to us in a way. So it is our responsibility to tell them everything honestly. We tell them that we feel it is better for young kids to stay in their own environment before they are mentally ready to step into the outer world."
Chimni added that they also make sure that wherever the kids are going, those academies are serious about development and the other important things of life do not get compromised.
"A lot of other parents come to us and ask how kids are doing. The fact that they are being trained in an organised setup while making sure that they are getting quality education is what makes us feel proud. YLL helped them improve and we know that more kids from Champhai will be moving out every year," parents of the scouted kids collectively expressed.
IS THIS A SUCCESS STORY?
Success has various definitions but for YLL organisers, it is the development of the entire community of Champhai that they see as success. Achreja says it is not about creating heroes but a holistic impact that the programme has on everyone associated with it.
The programme has not only enabled kids to receive professional football training but people have also taken up coaching seriously and various other volunteers in the league also receive employment.
"The kids who have been able to go out of the town for football education are already role models at their place. Now, everything that we want the kids to do, they will do it with more fire. They will fight in the next YLL because they also want to go out.
"Tomorrow even if they don't become great footballers, they have brought with them a wealth of experience, exposure and great education, much better than anybody could get in these areas at this point in time. With them, the society can get uplifted. That's a hero for us. If he can be great on the pitch, that's great because he can impact even more people but even if does not do that, he can have a positive impact on the society around him," Achreja explained.
The league has enabled kids aged 15, 17 or 19 to volunteer as coaches of their community teams and that has built an ecosystem where they are leading the teams. Some of these kids have even inquired with the organisers about licensing programmes that can enable them to coach the kids better.
Chimni shared an example of how YLL has opened up opportunities for everyone in Champhai. Daia, the coach of Champhai Lions, took it upon himself to train his team during weekdays. With regular training, the results showed on the pitch and then others caught the idea too.
"We have been able to learn through our game experience in YLL however for better improvement, we need to go for licenses. If a license program can be conducted for our locality, it will be great since there is a lot of demand for it. This way we can help more with player development and produce more players from our locality," Daia said.
Parents in Champhai also feel that their kids have been happier since they started playing football regularly and that has motivated them to do the other things better as well.
Lalchhuanawma shared that his brother Lalrinpuia encouraged his team to not eat on the field and keep it clean. Lalrinmawia's mother Chawngthansangi, shares that she has seen her son become less shy and open up to people. "His performance on the field seemed like he was a completely different person, more focussed and leading his team," she said.
Vanlaltlelpula, who was scouted by Bengaluru FC, his mother Lalhmachhuani said she saw her kid throw waste food packets in the dustbin, understanding his responsibility towards the environment.
The parents feel Young Legends League is showing their kids the true path to a successful life.