How Mizoram’s parents are coming together for their babies’ future
In Mizoram, football is the only possible hope of a way out of poverty for most. Through the RFYC Naupang (baby) League, that hope is finding wings.
Aizawl: If a stranger were to visit the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium on a normal training day for Aizawl FC - the same venue where the I-League club had catapulted into Indian football history by triumphing over Mohun Bagan to seal the national title back in 2017 - they would be stunned.
There would be a mass of chattering parents milling at every entry point of the stadium, breakfast vendors shouting themselves hoarse, buses full of children ranging from five years old to thirteen years old arriving from far-flung places, causing jams at the entrance.
They would not be there not to watch Aizawl FC, but for the RFYC Naupang (Mizo for ‘baby’) League, a grassroots league launched here from November 2022 by Reliance Foundation and the Mizoram FA. The inaugural season has drawn participation of 2000 school kids across the four districts of Aizawl, Champhai, Lunglei and Kolasib.
“As a small state in the furthest corner of the northeast, we have never had a partnership like this one with Reliance. The Naupang League is a seed we are sowing. Yes, football existed here earlier, but it was not the same in terms of organisation, match day facilities, professional management,” said Tetea Hmar of the MFA, Mizoram’s most recognisable sports administrator.
These days, it is a football carnival at the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium. Children enter the pitch to the music of the ISL, waving at cameras and playing their hearts out on the pitch. They line up to collect their bananas and eggs after their matches, something which seems to be a big draw for the younger ones.
The younger the age, the bigger role the parents seem to play. Screams can be heard from the sidelines as a toddler waddles with the ball towards goal and a crowd of other similarly sized defenders waddle behind him.
One thing is common to all age-level matches. Every goal scorer seems to have practised Cristiano Ronaldo’s ‘Siu’ celebration. It is something they do often without having scored a goal, just to show they have that skill covered.
Laldinpuia, one of the Ronaldo fans, is the son of Zohmingmawii, one of the parents who come to the ground at the crack of dawn, before even the coaches.
“I earn wages through daily labour, so I have to sacrifice one day's wages when my son has a football match. The coaches have told me my son has potential, so why not sacrifice one day’s money?” she said.
Laldinpuia is one of the children who have been brought to the Naupang League by coach Anand, a local coach who trains around 70 children, most of them for free.
“I started with 3-4 kids last year, now everyone wants to get in, all because of the tie-up with Reliance. I have 70 kids now, admission has been closed. It’s like they study in my academy and give exams at the Reliance league,” said Anand.
Abraham Lalrinawma, 9, is another such boy who was spotted by Anand playing with a homemade shoe just outside his ground. His mother Laldanglovi said, “My usual day is spent earning money gathering things from the forest, which I give up when my son has a match. Football can be a way out of rising above our situation for him, I have full belief. And even if it doesn't, it will teach him discipline."
The age categories at the Naupang League begin at Under-5 and continue until Under-13 with multiple game formats. A minimum of 30 games will be played by each child across the season. The leagues are set to run parallelly till June 2023.
Most of the parents are daily wagers, so not all of them can make it to the ground everyday. But the parents have teamed up so that every parent has charge of four kids on each match day while travelling from home, some which are in very remote areas.
Girls play in the same teams as boys. One of the best girl footballers is April Lalruattluangi, the daughter of local legend Shylo Malsawmtluanga, who joins the other proud parents in the stands.
And it is not just the players who are part of the colourful cast on match days.
Immanuel Lalropuia, a 14-year-old referee who officiates the junior-level matches at the Naupang League, diligently goes about his job, noting down his bookings in his official notebook. He is only too happy to flash his colourful cards, so the players have to be extra careful.
“Being a referee attracted me more than being a player. By being a referee I can be employed. I can earn money by being a I-League, ISL referee. My brother used to play football earlier, but my parents are daily wagers, so they couldn’t provide much,” he said.
And then there are some human stories which confound belief. Like the story of Lalchatuana, a farmer who brings his sons Vanlalnunrempuia, 8, and Lalrinfela, 6, on a four-hour trip every day on a shared taxi.
“We have already seen Jeje, Mama, their success, through Youtube. It is a father’s responsibility to give his kids the best coaching they can possibly get. So I dedicate everything to football. We start at 6 am from our village when we have a match in Aizawl. On other days, they practise drills by the road in my village using wood cones, empty noodle boxes,” he said.
His two sons are two of the stars of the league - one of them has scored 91 goals in 17 matches and the other has scored 90 goals in 18 matches.
But along with their growing prowess on the football field, taking part in the uber-professional league is helping the children grow even beyond football.
ATK Mohun Bagan’s Lalthathanga Khawlhring, also known as Puitea, was one of the enthusiastic people who had come to watch the babies in action at the Aizawl ground in the small vacation he got after the ISL season.
He said, “In my time, football was played only on the pitch. Now it is also off the pitch, you have to know how to take care of your body, what smoking, drugs and alcohol can do to yourself. Football has taught me everything, how to treat people, to respect opponents, the staff. Football gave me a new life. These kids will become much more professional than us after 10-15 years.”
Tetea, who has seen Mizoram football grow over the past two decades, added, “You don’t wake up and just go to play football any more, what has changed is the intensity and professionalism in training. Those youngsters who are now fortunate enough to be part of the Naupang League will have more focus, competitive spirit by the time they are in their 20s.”
Both Tetea and Puitea added one other reason why the whole of Mizoram is grateful to the Naupang League - no more do children have to stay years away from home to become a successful footballer.
"We used to think that for a footballer from here to make it into the I-League and ISL, they would have to go to an academy outside the state. That feeling has changed now,” said Tetea.
Puitea said, “I didn’t come home in one year when I was in Pune. It’s more difficult to not see your parents, friends at that age than you can imagine. Look at the parents’ support here, the emotion is something else here.”
It is said that little unites Mizoram quite like football. The Naupang League seems to have brought forth an outpouring of this unity - all for the sake of the babies.