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DIFL Article in Business Standard

In a League of Its Own

DIFL in Action
Archana Jahagirdar / New Delhi April 12, 2009, 0:51 IST

Children of 60 nationalities team up to play, and their parents volunteer their time each year for the Delhi International Football League.

DIFL is about entertainment rather than just about football,” says Rajni Malhotra. Delhi International Football League is DIFL and Malhotra is its commissioner. DIFL was started by a mixed-race couple in Delhi sometime during the 1980s. It was an idea whose time had come, as the league has grown and today has as many as 12 teams in five divisions. Each team has 16 players and from January to March every year, from five-year-olds to 14-year-olds of both genders from 60 nationalities play every Saturday morning. Says Malhotra, “The league matches aren’t about competing but about getting acquainted with the game.” It is also about parents and grandparents bonding with their offsprings in a relaxed environment. Says businessman Amarjit Singh, whose wife sponsors a team, Two Feet, in the league, “My older son Arzaan joined the league, I became involved. I was a team manager last year. This year we decided to sponsor a team as we really enjoyed DIFL. Seeing your child play helps you connect with your child in a unique way. You also get to know other children and parents.”

The DIFL is almost entirely run by parents of children who play in the league. Malhotra, for instance, wasn’t even aware of what DIFL was till her husband, owner of Bahrisons, a bookstore in Delhi’s tony Khan Market, sponsored a team. She says, “About six-seven years ago after my husband sponsored a team, when the sponsorship came up for renewal the subsequent year, we decided to enroll our son in the league as well. My son then was eight years old and I accompanied him. That’s when I realised that parents are involved with the league and I started getting interested in it.”

Malhotra started as a team manager and from then gradually moved to the committee and then finally took over as the commissioner sometime in 2008. Each of the teams has a manager, a coach, an assistant coach, who are all picked up from the pool of volunteering parents. Says Malhotra, “Even parents who have not played the sport before can volunteer as coaches. We do a coaches training before the league starts. The idea is not to churn out professional football players but keep this parent-child interaction high.”

Businessman Arjun Kohli, another DIFL parent (his son plays in the league) was one of the first Indian coaches. He says of his motivation to give his time for coaching, “Indian parents want their children to do several activities, but don’t get involved themselves.” Kohli, who admits that coaching takes up a lot of time during the league season, says that despite that he loves it. He says, “I have been doing this for several seasons. I find coaching a stress-buster. It’s amazing exposure.”

Kohli started with coaching division two ( seven to eight-year-olds) and now coaches division five (13- to 14-year-olds), where he says the matches do tend to get a bit competitive. If Kohli, Singh and Malhotra were driven to participate because of their children, there are others like dentist Anurag Bhagat who though not yet a father, is also a team sponsor and a coach at DIFL. Bhagat’s first point of contact with DIFL were his patients. He says, “I would get a lot of people coming to my clinic wearing the DIFL jersey. Hearing about it made me interested.”

Bhagat, who has played football during his school days, says that the incentive initially was the game itself. He says, “I enjoy football a lot and for sports I make time.” As Bhagat coached his team and sponsored one as well, he says now he looks forward to it: “I think being part of the DIFL is another way to de-stress.”

Keeping DIFL going is, however, a lot of hard work for the parents. Pitches for the league have to be booked in advance. The registration for the league is in itself a lot of work as people start queuing up for the limited spots. After the list is out of those children that are in (there is a priority list which includes children of parents who have committed their time for positions like coach, manager, sponsor and so on) there is a skill assessment day in November where, again, volunteers (generally parents) watch the selected children go through simple exercises.

The children are then divided up into teams and assigned coaches and a manager. Each division is further supervised by two co-ordinators. There are also committee members. Division one, which has the youngest children, aren’t put through any training but division two onwards, there is one day per week that is kept aside for practice. Says Malhotra, “The first few matches of division one are organised chaos.” But even then, with parents, sometimes grandparents, coming to watch, it ends up as a fun family outing. One parent is assigned per match to bring snacks for the team. There is a snack roster as well. Says Malhotra, “The idea at the end of the 12 weeks of the league is not that your child will become a star footballer.” The league, however, does hire referees and follows FIFA rules for all the matches.

Though the league stays away from serious competition, team managers, sponsors and parents do try and do their best for the players. Says Singh, of his team, “We were doing really badly in the league, so we came up up the idea, rather serendipitously, to have cheerleaders. That was a first for the league.” He says that it helped the team come together. He says of their association with division one, “Everyone is normally very enthusiastic when they are part of division one.”

The league has been such a success that there are other such leagues coming up in other parts of the national capital region. The reason that this league has succeeded without an office or their pitches is, according to Malhotra, “DIFL happens in our hearts, heads and homes be it storing the kits, having meetings.” And when the heart and head want the same thing, it’s bound to be a big hit.