The Asian Football Confederation Grassroots Football Day returned this year with the Northern Mariana Islands Football Association among the 41 AFC-member associations that participated in the event held over the weekend.
NMIFA held matches in the U8 and U10 age groups (4×4 format) and U12 (5×5) in the afternoon at the NMI Soccer Training Center in Koblerville, bringing the total games played to 52 (20-minute match). The island’s U8, U10, and U12 players were part of the more than 200,000 children that celebrated the resumption of the AFC Grassroots Football Day. The program was shelved last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year, 12 teams joined the U12 event with TanHoldings Betde 1, Kanoa 1, Southern United 1, Paire, MP United 1, and Shirley’s A placed in Group A. Group B had TanHoldings Betde 2, Kanoa 2, Southern United 2, Matansa, MP United 2, and Shirley’s B. Shirley’s also had two teams in the U8 age group and played against Kanoa, MP United Typhoon, and Paire Eagles. Paire fielded one team in the U18 division and were joined by TanHoldings Betde, Kanoa 1 and 2, and Shirley’s.
“It was great to see young players back to our field. I’m very happy that finally these age groups can enjoy the game. Usually, we organize a festival format for the AFC Grassroots Football Day, but our technical team considered these age categories had not played game for long time due to pandemic, so we decided to provide as many games to the kids,” NMIFA technical director Michiteru Mita said.
He added that NMIFA utilized the AFC Grassroots Football Day to motivate children to return to the pitch safely by following guidelines from the Governor’s COVID-19 Task Force. Mita thanked the coaches and NMIFA-member clubs for organizing teams and helping them ensure the safe conduct of the event.
Kathy Ruszala, who coached one of the Paire teams, said their players really looked forward to the resumption of soccer activities at the NMISTC.
“The kids absolutely loved it despite the heat. They enjoyed seeing their friends that played in the other teams and even looked forward to playing against them. Our team grew more and more confident and found their chemistry by the final game,” Ruszala said.
Gradual, safe return to play
Meanwhile, Mita said they plan to gradually resume youth leagues and reiterates on doing it according to safety guidelines set by the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. and the Governor’s COVID-19 Task Force.
“Our first priority is the players’ health and safety. After the AFC Grassroots Football Day, we plan to have a summer youth league to prepare for fall season and provide more game opportunities for young players,” Mita said.
“Football equals game. Players learn from games. Without game environment, players cannot improve. I hope more players come back to the game and a lot of parents and supporters come to watch the matches,” he added.
When NMIFA resumed action at the pitch early this year, it only had the M-League and the Dove Women’s Spring League 2021 with mostly adults and several U14 and U19 players competing.