For any nation serious about its football, its the development of grassroots that's most important. Only a strong system that reaches the very basic levels required can help build a foundation strong enough for a successful footballing system to flourish. We have seen great examples of this across the world, including the golden generation of Belgium – who were weaned as budding youngsters and provided the right platform for them to hone their talents.
India, too is doing its bit, and the U-18 league is one of the most promising developments in the footballing scene of the country. The league, which takes the phrase “inclusive development” to heart, will have 37 clubs in total and will draw in clubs from all across the nation, including 3 clubs from Jammu and Kashmir. They have been divided into 8 zones.
The league will kick off on November 14 (Monday) in the Maharastra Zone when Mumbai FC take on Kenkre Sports Club.
Pune City FC is the only ISL club to have a representation in this important league, while all the I-league first and second division teams are fielding sides, alongside a few of the nation's pre-eminent football academies.
The teams from every zone will play on a home-away basis among themselves in the round robin stage and 12 teams will qualify to the National Final Round eventually. Those twelve teams will be divided into three groups and the group champions along with the 'Best Second Placed Team' will qualify for the semi-final which will be followed by the final to decide the U-18 I-League 2016-17 champions.
Sunando Dhar, CEO, I-League said the increase in the numbers highlights the fact “cultivating newer talents to contribute to the senior teams eventually” .
He added - “We have witnessed an enticing U-18 I-League last season and we're expecting nothing less than another gruelling season,”
The AIFF elite academy were crowned champions last time around (as well as the year before that). Tata Football Academy, Pune FC Academy (twice) and JCT are all past winners of a tournament that was started in 2011.
The success of the U-16 team in the recent AFC Cup and the BRICS Cup is a testament to how the grassroots development has been upped in the past few years.
These are the competing teams this season, for your easy reference -
Kolkata zone - East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, Mohammedan Sporting, SAI Kolkata, Southern Samity, United Sports Club;
Maharastra zone - DSK Shivajians, Mumbai FC, Kenkre Sports, PIFA Sports, FC Pune City;
Shillong-Guwahati zone - Shillong Lajong FC, SAI Guwahati, Royal Wahingdoh FC, Rangdajied United FC, Gauhati Town Club;
Delhi zone - Bhaichung Bhutia Football School, Sudeva FC, Delhi United FC, SAI Delhi, Hindustan FC;
Goa zone - Dempo SC, Sporting Clube de Goa, Salgaocar FC, AIFF Academy;
Rest of India A zone - Neroca FC, Aizawl FC, Tata Football Academy, Pride Sports;
Rest of India B zone - Bengaluru FC, Ozone FA, Fateh Hyderabad AFC, Kahaani FC;
Rest of India C zone - Real Kashmir FC, Lonestar Kashmir FC, Minerva Academy FC, J&K Bank.
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