The 30-something woman in a tracksuit sits on a mound of grass and shields her eyes from the winter sun as she looks up at us. “I have a 104˚ fever,” she admits. “My husband locked the front door to stop me from coming here. But I came anyway.”
What kind of passion is it that keeps these Delhi moms and dads turning up at 8.30 am every Saturday at the Kathuria Public School grounds, come rain, shine or fever? Turns out, it is not just their love for soccer, but their commitment to the Delhi International Football League (DIFL), the only one of its kind in India, run entirely by parent volunteers. And their enthusiasm is only a fraction of what their kids bring to the game. Over 1,100 children, aged five to 16, participate in the DIFL every year, the process for which begins online at http://www.difl.org in August and is usually fully registered within minutes of opening. After a multi-layered team selection process – in which children of volunteer and sponsor parents are given a transparent priority – coaching begins in October and inter-team matches are played from December to February every year.
“We have children of 43 different nationalities from 60-odd Delhi schools playing this year,” says Rajni Bahri Malhotra, commissioner of the DIFL, who has been associated with the league ever since her youngest child, now 15, began playing at the age of seven. There are six divisions at DIFL, divided by age group, each of which has 12 teams each. All teams have a sponsor – for instance, Malhotra’s family bookstore, Bahrisons, sponsors the team Bahri Braves. Other sponsors offer services, such as ambulances or free mineral water. Each child pays INR 4,000 for the whole season, which only partly covers the cost of his or her exhaustive kit. The rest of the cost is taken care of by sponsor support. “We work on a non-profit model. Except for the hired referees, everyone else is a parent volunteer or sponsor, including the committee members. Fathers usually volunteer as coaches, mothers as team managers and coordinators. If there’s any money left, it is pumped back into the system,” says Malhotra, who spends about five hours a day on DIFL activities, meeting suppliers, emailing parents or drawing up tenders and cheques.
Started by an expat mother Peggy Sood in the eighties, the league is a special draw for diplomat families. Sabrina Koschella, a consul at the German Embassy in Delhi, found the league a great advantage for her three kids and especially her firstborn, Kieran Mullins, who has played soccer at far more advanced levels in Germany and Ghana before they moved to India. “Soccer is taken much more seriously in Germany, of course, and kids there start early,” she explains, while cheering her 15-year-old on at the Thyagaraj Stadium, where DIFL’s division-six plays. “But Kieran loves it here. This is the closest he can get to professional soccer in India; it’s all very immaculately managed.”
“The kids learn leadership, fitness and life skills, and also gain in terms of social standing and friendships,” adds Hemanshu Chaturvedi of HTC Sports, who volunteers as a coach in his son’s team and advocates sport as an investment in social and individual health. Mankanwaljeet Chawla, founder of an adventure sports company, agrees: “Community-based sports such as DIFL serve as artificial inducers of a genetically healthier society, generation after generation. Energy is channelised and multiplied, and sports-oriented societies have been shown to have lesser rates of petty crimes,” he shares.
Back at the Kathuria grounds, homemaker Deepa Chaddha, a volunteer pitch coordinator, hollers to her division-four team to take a break. “I wouldn’t give this up for the world,” she says, her arms full of juices and snacks. A little distance away, Henrietta Bullinger, half-German and half-English, with two sons in the league, is raising participation in a cancer awareness walk. “Last year, my charity raised a huge amount of money from DIFL parents alone,” she marvels, adding that it is not just the tangible physical benefit but also the wider international community that her kids get access to that attracted her to DIFL. Whether community spirit, fitness or personal growth, all teams are winners here.