The Little Gaurs League, the Forca Goa Foundation’s flagship program, is one of India’s biggest Baby Leagues. The third edition of the competition commenced on March 5 at St. Anthony’s High School Ground, Monte de Guirim, Mapusa in Goa, after a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Held across three locations in Goa – Navelim, Vasco and Mapusa – the Little Gaurs League has witnessed participation by 91 teams and 744 children across four categories viz. U-6, U-8, U-10 and U-12 this season. Additionally, it also has an exclusive U-12 category for girls and hosts mixed teams with a view to promoting gender equality in football.
Buoyed by the enthusiastic response from a plethora of budding footballers, the tournament has a dual purpose. It not only promotes the sport among children in a fun-filled and competitive space, but also aims to create a football ecosystem. This involves providing young players with a platform to showcase their skills and move up the footballing pyramid, creating better coaches and referees, and upgrading the existing infrastructure.
The resumption of the Little Gaurs League comes as a breather for children and their parents alike after the pandemic put paid to all AIFF-affiliated Golden Baby Leagues a couple of years ago.
Forca Goa Foundation's Little Gaurs League – A program for all
Founded in 2017, the Forca Goa Foundation began as ISL club FC Goa’s grassroots football program. The stakeholders of the club envisaged the Little Gaurs League in a bid to develop footballers, increase game time for young players and help them hone their decision-making ability and match skills.
The project has been fairly successful so far, engaging children, their parents and fans in various activities apart from the sport itself. Besides organizing three matchdays per week per zone, it also fosters community spirit through mini games among parents and fans, and workshops on nutrition and waste management.
What stands out about the Little Gaurs League more than anything else is its pursuit of inclusiveness. This has thrown up many inspiring stories, cutting across social barriers.
Take the Learn to Play academy and Kiran Niketan as examples. Learn to Play has centers in and around Mumbai, namely Airoli, Mulund, Vashi and Thane. Started by Goan coach Antonio Jeronimo Dias, the academy has fielded a team in the U-10 age category in the North Zone. For the kids of this academy, no distance is too far as they travel every week to participate in the Little Gaurs League. They were one of the first teams to register for the competition and currently lead the standings, impressing everyone with their style and quality of play.
Kiran Niketan’s tale, meanwhile, is one of zeal and social upliftment. A school for the underprivileged based out of Goa’s Zuarinagar, Kiran Niketan teaches children from the first to the fourth grade and is run by nuns and a few teachers. Thankfully, the school has its own playground, which initiates its students to the ‘Beautiful Game’. This is where the Forca Goa Foundation interacts with children via weekly coaching sessions.
This season, Kiran Niketan has registered two teams, one in the U-8 category and the other in the U-10. The teams were initially looking for sponsors to fund their registration fees and basic needs like shoes and socks for a few children.
Despite being unable to find a sponsor, Kiran Niketan’s players refused to get bogged down. While some of the boys have managed to buy new shoes, the rest are playing with their school shoes. As for the registration fees, FC Goa staff have come together to sponsor the teams so that the children don’t lack motivation. Their passion for the sport shone through when Kiran Niketan’s U-8 team won its first game 5-0.
Nine-year-old Piyush Sawant's name should also be mentioned. He was recently called up to FC Goa’s U-13 side for the ongoing edition of the JSW Youth Cup in Bellary. Sawant has been a star performer in the Little Gaurs League and his elevation to FC Goa’s U-13 team highlights the tournament’s impact in such a short period. If things go well, nine more players coming through the Little Gaurs League are set to represent FC Goa’s age-group teams in the coming days.
A couple of years ago, FC Goa and the Forca Goa Foundation entered into a partnership with the Salvador do Mundo Panchayat for the renovation of their football ground and hosting of weekly festivals to train the youngsters. In fact, one of the teams participating in the Little Gaurs League comes from the village.
However, the 2019-20 ISL Shield winners fell prey to local politics when they were forced out of their training base at Salvador do Mundo on November 30, 2020, after the newly elected members of the Panchayat dug up a concrete cricket pitch in the middle of the two grounds and threatened to discontinue the existing three-year partnership.
As per an MoU signed between FC Goa and the Salvador do Mundo Panchayat in May 2021, the club is not expected to pay any rent for using the grounds in the first three years. The Gaurs have invested almost ₹1 crore to build two pitches there, one for their first team and the other for the locals. They even provide free coaching to local residents on the second pitch at the U-18, U-14 and grassroots levels.
After being granted police protection, FC Goa returned to the Salvador do Mundo ground on December 9. Subsequently, on December 22, the Principal District Judge of Panaji placed a restraining order on the Salvador do Mundo Panchayat for invading the first team’s practice ground. The entire episode, though, has tarnished the goodwill of Goan football and exposed the plight of the Indian sporting landscape.
Kolkata, home to three traditional powerhouses in Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan SC, has long ceased to be the hub of Indian football. The Northeast has emerged as the top breeding ground for young talent in recent years and this has happened mainly due to the Kolkata giants’ negligence towards grassroots development. While the youth set-ups of both Mohun Bagan (now ATK Mohun Bagan) and East Bengal are in such a miserable state that the clubs are unable to field teams in the inaugural Development League, Mohammedan are currently trying to put things together after languishing in Indian football’s second division for the majority of the past four decades.
When an eight-year-old club like FC Goa are constantly endeavoring to achieve excellence in the ISL and leaving no stone unturned to boost India’s grassroots football, why halt their progress and dampen their spirits with acts of vandalism? Who’s going to answer?