In recent times, Maharashtra has lost its place on the football map of India. Once home to I-League outfits like Mumbai FC, DSK Shivajians, Mahindra United and the likes, the western state just has Indian Super League (ISL) sides Mumbai City FC and FC Pune City and India Rush Soccer Club from the Indian Women’s League, to boast of right now in the top-tier tournaments.
However, the Western India Football Association (WIFA) has expressed that it does not fear losing its identity on the national level. ‘’It is the business of the clubs if they want to shut down or keep their deals. Our (WIFA’s) job is to increase the participation. Today in Maharashtra, there are 28 teams in U-15, U-13 and U-18 leagues, which is a big chunk. I don’t think any other state would have so much participation,’’ Henry Menezes, CEO of WIFA, tells Goal.
"Maharashtra has been at the top in the U-13, U-15 and U-18 leagues. I’m not sure if any other state has so many teams. We are creating from the base a club structure. We are very happy with what is going on," he adds.
Since the last five years, Menezes reiterates that Maharashtra has focused on grassroots, sports education and youth competitions. He explains that WIFA has tried to get districts involved in coach education first as it is the most important thing.
WIFA subsequently introduced the D License coaching course. "Today, we have around 4,250 or more coaches certified and trained under this license. It has gone pan-India. If you look at the coaching structure in India, we could be more than 50 per cent of the licenses which India has done."
The football structure in Maharashtra sees U14, U16 and women’s league under the club structure. In addition to this, the district-level football includes sub-junior, junior and senior division for men’s football while women’s football has junior and senior divisions.
Here, we take a look at the current framework of the leagues and the proposed future plans at the respective levels.
Maharashtra, despite being one of the largest states in India with 36 districts, does not have a state football league.
The idea of ‘’Maha League’’ was proposed about five years ago but eventually, it couldn’t be implemented as the sponsor pulled out. However, WIFA plans to bring back some action.
"This year September, we plan to speak to teams as we see strength in Kolhapur, Mumbai, Nagpur and Pune. We’re trying to get into a six-team home-and-away basis league to start off with. Slowly, we will come up with certain criteria for more teams to join in," Menezes reveals.
Maharashtra has leagues only in six districts, namely Mumbai, Thane, Pune, Kolhapur, Aurangabad and Nagpur. All of these districts have their own leagues at the senior, U14 and U16 levels. The winners, however, aren’t granted any promotion due to the absence of competition at the state level.
Mumbai's district league is considered as the top-most league in the state.
The future plans of WIFA include introducing a six-team system. ‘’This year we are trying to get a system where six teams play in a home and away basis. We don’t have a senior state league right now but if everybody agrees, we will. The logistics are an issue because teams like Nagpur have to travel 1400 km, which has an expense to it,’’ Menezes claimed.
Youth leagues and 'Baby League'
The state has U-13, U-14, U-15 and U-18 leagues. A U-16 championship is on the cards for the ongoing year. "In our U-14 competition, we had 119 teams which participated from six districts. We got around 16 teams in Mumbai for a state competition which was well received by all. This year, we have included Nashik and Palghar to make it eight districts; we don’t want to open it up for everyone unless they fulfill criteria.
"Come June, we will start the U-14 Championship. The U-16 championship and women’s state league will be introduced this year,’’ claims Menezes.
‘Baby League’ is for ages 6 to 12; WIFA, however, plans to include 4-year-olds too from next year where they will play 2v2 or 3v3.
Every team participating in the baby leagues has about 20 players in three teams (U8, U10 and U12). The league has a single point system which means if the U8 side wins a game, the club gets three points and if the U10 side wins, three more points are added to the club's tally and at the end, the team with the most points win.
Menezes explains the reason for this format saying, ‘’This is done so the kids and the parents stay at the venue to cheer for the other teams. This helps in creating community; one will always see 150 people cheering for the kids.’’
Baby League's’ first phase began in January and it takes place every weekend. There are 84 teams participating from Mumbai, Navi Mumbai, Pune and WIFA wants Nashik, Kolhapur and Palghar to get into the mix.
"It is played in a league format where kids shouldn’t travel more than 5 km. It is done on a home and away basis with five-a-side or seven-a-side contest. In the ninth round, all 84 teams would play at Cooperage,’’ describes Menezes.
Women's football structure
WIFA conducts an inter district football championship for women which had six to eight teams participating when it was commenced. Currently, there are 18 districts participating, according to Menezes.
‘’We invite every district. This year 24 districts confirmed but six of those could not form a team at the last moment and dropped out,’’ he tells.
The districts carry out their respective leagues after which they select a strong side to represent the district in the inter district competition, which is a knockout tournament.
WIFA plans to bring in a state-level championship for women this year. ‘’Eight women’s team will come into the championship. They will play in two groups at Cooperage Stadium of which the top two of both groups will head into the semi-final and final,’’ explains Menezes.