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A club... a level playing field

Shantanu Das, Ramen Majumdar and Prosenjit Mondal eat, breathe and dream football. But for the trio, hailing from economically backward families, playing the beautiful game was a luxury they could ill afford.

It’s thanks to the Ashoknagar Purbachal Sangha in Habra, North 24-Parganas, that the boys, along with 47 other youngsters, have a chance to pursue their dream. The club not only provides coaching but also raises money for them to buy basic football gear.

The three were given scholarships in the first leg of The Telegraph School Awards for Excellence on September 2 for their skills, grit and determination. Their club won the Patton Award for A School That Cares, for changing the world of the 50 young talented footballers of the area, who receive coaching every day of the year, food and full kits free of cost, at The Telegraph school awards 2012 on September 8.

The money comes from residents of the area, who voluntarily pay whatever amount they can each month.

“We used to play in the same field earlier also but since the academy was started two years ago, things have changed. The field was levelled and we started playing in boots for the first time,” said Shantanu, 15, whose father sells telebhaja.

Earlier, there was no formal training. Now, Jayanta Pal, a former player of the local league, provides the boys training in the finer points of the game.

Because of the training, Shantanu, a stopper, can now better judge the moves of the opponents and is able to intercept the ball more frequently. “I have learnt to use my head while playing,” said the die-hard fan of Lionel Messi and of Barcelona by default.

Pint-sized striker Ramen, 12, who swears by Cristiano Ronaldo, agrees that there is now a direction to their game that was earlier lacking. Ramen says he can run faster now, and his stamina has improved dramatically. More importantly, he scores more goals.

Thanks to the club, both Ramen and his elder brother are able to chase their football dreams in proper kits although their father is a vanrickshaw-puller with a meagre income.

The boys are egged on by names likes Shankar Sadhu, a midfielder who went on to play for East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting and Babun Kar, who played for Mohun Bagan. Both spent their formative years at the Purbachal Sangha ground.

They know that if they keep improving, they would get a chance to represent their club’s senior side that participates in the Ashoknagar shield and league, which the big teams of the Calcutta Maidan keep track of.

When Kamalendu Banerjee and other teenagers of his para had floated the Ashoknagar Purbachal Sangha in 1957, they wanted to make a difference in the lives of the poverty-stricken but talented football players in the area. Six decades on, their dream has taken a concrete shape with the commencement of the free formal training.

“It’s the generation of our grandsons which has achieved what we had really wanted,” said Banerjee, 68, sitting on a bench in the park and intently watching the boys warm up. “We couldn’t have imagined things could be done in such an organised way. Today, local residents pay subscriptions as and when they can and the money is used to fund the football practice.”

“We had started out as a cultural club. We celebrated Durga Puja and channelled our energies to unearth football talent in area. Regular practice started and the poor and not-so-poor played together. But still, many talented boys would quit football as they grew up,” he added.

The going has not been easy, however, said old-timers. In 2005, when cricket fever reached a crescendo, practice had to be discontinued.

But the young guns of the locality, such as Sudipto Chakraborty, 35, whose grandfather was one of the founding members of the club, came forward in 2010 and revived the football tradition by raising funds from members and neighbours.

“We were amazed at the enthusiasm with which people started to contribute. In the interim, a former footballer from here, Sheluda (Pradip Bhattachrya) used to buy kits for kids in his individual capacity to keep the football flame flickering. That gave us the impetus to put together a consolidated fund for the same purpose and more,” said Sudipto.

The ground was levelled and a perimeter fence erected. The local civic body, too, played its part by cementing the slopes of the pond adjoining the ground. The club was also one of the beneficiaries of the Rs 2 lakh that chief minister Mamata Banerjee donated to local clubs this January. That was a timely fillip to their activities, said a member.