"It’s like they study in my academy and give exams at the Naupang league,” Anand Gurung (via The Bridge)
The Rajiv Gandhi Stadium, where Aizawl FC made history by winning the national title in 2017, has transformed into a bustling hub of activity. However, it's not for Aizawl FC matches anymore. The stadium has become the venue for the RFYC Naupang League, a grassroots league launched in November 2022 by Reliance Foundation and the Mizoram FA. The inaugural season of the league has drawn the participation of 2,000 school kids from four districts in Mizoram.
The Naupang League has brought a newfound sense of organization, professional management, and matchday facilities to football in Mizoram. The league has become a football carnival at the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium, with children entering the pitch to the music of the Indian Super League (ISL), waving at cameras, and playing their hearts out. The league provides a platform for young players to showcase their skills and learn the values of discipline and teamwork.
The parents play a crucial role in supporting their children's participation in the Naupang League. Many of them are daily wage earners who have to sacrifice a day's wages to attend their child's matches. However, they believe in the potential of their children and see football as a way for them to rise above their circumstances. Local coaches like Anand have played a significant role in training and nurturing these young talents. Anand, who trains around 70 children, has seen a surge in demand for admission to his academy due to the tie-up with Reliance. The children study in his academy and participate in the Reliance league.
The Naupang League caters to children from the Under-5 to Under-13 age groups and features multiple game formats. Each child plays a minimum of 30 games throughout the season, which runs parallelly with other leagues until June 2023. The league also promotes gender equality by allowing girls to play in the same teams as boys.
The Naupang League has not only transformed the lives of young players but also created opportunities for others involved in the game. Immanuel Lalropuia, a 14-year-old referee, officiates the junior-level matches in the league and aspires to become a professional referee in the I-League and ISL. Lalropuia's parents are daily wage earners, and he sees refereeing as a way to secure employment and contribute to his family's financial well-being.
“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.
The league has also brought together communities and families. Parents collaborate to ensure that every child has support and transportation to and from the matches. They travel from remote areas to the stadium, dedicating themselves to providing their children with the best possible coaching and opportunities.
“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 Gurung, one of the coaches working in the league.
In addition to the footballing skills developed by the young players, the Naupang League also focuses on teaching life skills and values. Players learn about the importance of taking care of their bodies, the dangers of smoking, drugs, and alcohol, and how to treat people with respect.
The league has brought a wave of professionalism and intensity to football training in Mizoram. Young players in the Naupang League are expected to have a higher level of focus and competitiveness as they progress in their careers. The league has changed the perception that aspiring footballers from Mizoram need to leave the state and join academies elsewhere to succeed. The support from parents and the emotional connection to home has made a significant impact on the players' development.
Football has always been a unifying force in Mizoram, and the Naupang League has further strengthened this unity. The league has provided a platform for young talents to shine, with parents, coaches, and the entire community coming together to support the "babies" and their football dreams.