Growing with the game

It’s a quiet Saturday afternoon and the sun beats down mercilessly, but their excited eyes glisten brighter than the sweat beading on their foreheads. Forty-five children line up at Sangolda Football Ground at the launch of the second edition of the Little Gaurs League past November, each player eager to put their best foot forward for coach and team.

This league, an initiative of the Forca Goa Foundation, aims to improve football in Goa by getting children to play organised football regularly.  There is enough evidence to show that physical activity promotes overall health and development for both body and mind. By using football as a way to get children out onto the fields, the Forca Goa Foundation can promote a variety of healthy outcomes – from bringing communities together and improving youth nutrition to developing a pool of talent for India’s national team.

This vision has resonated with parents, teachers and stalwarts in Goa’s football world who believe that starting young will make all the difference. FC Goa captain and national team player Mandar Rao Desai admitted, “I started playing football at 10 years, but I think it was too late. In Europe, children start at 5-6 years old, which is the best time to learn the basics.”

Jump Networks Limited (JUMPNET), a publicly listed technology company, has come on board as the Principal Sponsor to make the league bigger as well as strengthen the Foundation’s belief and vision for grassroots development.

Through the Little Gaurs League, more than 40 teams have registered for the north zone alone, nearly double from last year. The age categories of Under 6 (mixed), Under 8 (mixed), Under 10 (mixed) and Under 12 (girls) encourage coaches, schools and communities to field more players from their networks.

Chinmay has been coaching the Under 17 team at Saraswat Vidyalaya High School in Mapusa, but only recently stepped up to take over the school’s new Under 8 team, and he’s loving it! “It’s important to coach them at the foundation stage so they grow to be better players. Right now, I am giving them a feel of the ball and teaching them the basic rules and ethics of football so we can go forward later,” he said.

Still, training is only half the effort it takes to make a skilled player. The rest comes from real-time competition experience. “I joined the Little Gaurs League to give my team the opportunity to play,” said Flobert Monteiro, who has been training the Under 12 girls team at El Shaddai, Assagao, for two years. He added, “Due to a lack of tournaments, they don’t get a chance to play. If you train children but don’t give them a chance to play, it’s of no use. The more tournaments there are, the more they’ll learn, the more talented they’ll become and the better they’ll be in the future.”

The Little Gaurs League is one of the very few leagues in India promoting football among young girls. Former women’s international and Goa Football Association Women’s Committee chairperson Juliana Gurjão e Colaço believes that football is an excellent platform to promote all-round development in young girls. “It’s a robust game, and makes you strong and fit. At a younger age, there is mixed gender play, which is also good. Structured play helps build character, discipline, better communication and care for others, and also requires brilliance because you have to use your brain when you play competitively,” she said.

And the benefits are almost immediate. Reema Tyagi found that her 11-year-old daughter Reha, who is participating in the all-girls category for United Front, has become more confident since she started playing football, which has also improved her social skills as she interacts with children from other schools and neighbourhoods. 

Across the field, the final whistle sounds and the winners throw their hands up in triumph. As they shuffle off the grass, there are hi-fives and handshakes all around. It may seem insignificant, but in this gesture lies a message – of winning with joy and without vanity, and of losing with dignity and without dejection. 

As coach Flobert said, “Losing doesn’t mean one stops playing. You may lose the match, but you learn from your mistakes.” Football lessons are life lessons.