36 years ago, a momentous decision was taken to start a sub-junior national championship in India for boys under 15 years of age. This was done to spot and nurture talent at a formative age. The first sub-junior nationals were held in Ernakulam in 1977, and Bengal and Manipur emerged joint champions, with the match ending in a goalless draw.
The rise of the North-East in Indian football can be traced from that tournament in 1977. By convincingly reaching the final and then holding traditional powerhouse Bengal to a draw, Manipur gave ample evidence of the depth of talent in their state. Assam became winners thrice in a row, from 1979 to 1981, providing further proof that football was thriving in the North-east region.
Mizoram also came to the forefront in national football via the sub-junior national football championships. They achieved a hat-trick of triumphs from 2003 to 2005, twice beating Bengal in the final. Shlyo Malsawmtluanga had already become the first Mizo to play as a professional when he joined East Bengal in 2003. But after successive victories in the sub-junior nationals, more Mizo players were selected by the top clubs in India and called to national camps.
The sub-junior national championships were beneficial for India but early in the 21st century they started floundering. The costs of staging the tournament escalated and fewer and fewer state associations volunteered to host these championships.
At that juncture Coca-Cola stepped in a like a Good Samaritan and started sponsoring the sub-junior nationals in a big way. Coca- Cola’s generous financial support has helped the AIFF to expand the concept of the sub-junior nationals and make it even more inclusive.
Coca-Cola has been involved with the AIFF since 2009, when they first sponsored the national U-16 championships. They renamed the tournament as 'The Coca-Cola Cup' in 2012, and this year is the third edition. However, as the tournament has been in existence since 1977, this year's edition is being referred to as the 36th Sub-junior national championships. Coca-Cola’s support to the AIFF also suits their profile as they rightly believe that grassroots level sports training leads to healthy living among people.
In the 20th century, most state associations just held perfunctory trials to select the state team for the sub-junior nationals. Young players were informed of the trials by word of mouth or by newspaper reports. Thanks to Coca-Cola, the selection trials are now much more extensive.
For the Coca-Cola Cup, each state association conducts an inter-school football tournament, which is watched by selectors who choose talented players for the state trials. Thanks to the blossoming of this event, proper identification of talent is taking place and the selection of state teams is not being done in a hasty manner.
All the state teams are divided into five zones. The state teams from each zone play in a tournament at the zonal level, and the top two teams from each zone qualify for the National Finals. At the National Finals, the AIFF identifies and selects talented young footballers who are then groomed so that they could eventually get picked in the official National Under-15 team.
Youth football in India is in the pink of health, and it goes without saying that this is excellent news for the overall state of the game in the country. For the national team to ever find a place in tournaments like the World Cup, the development efforts have to start at the grassroots level. And the Coca-Cola Cup is attempting exactly that.