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Talent from dark alley, ticket to Old Trafford

Rajib Roy (left) and Arko Dey will train with the Manchester United under-21 team in England along with nine other Indian footballers. Picture by Sanat Kumar Sinha

Arko Dey swears by the Red Devils of Old Trafford and “teammate” Rajib Roy wears a Manchester United T-shirt though his heart beats for the Reds of Liverpool.

The two 16-year-old footballers come from the poorest strata of society but their soccer skills have earned them a ticket to England — for a training stint with the Manchester United under-21 team along with nine others from the country as part of the Airtel Rising Stars second edition.

Rajib grew up in the dark lanes of Sonagachi, the red-light area where his mother was once a prostitute. Arko helps his mom in her roadside food stall in Baranagar where they sell telebhaja — thinly-sliced potato, onion and aubergine fritters.

They qualified as two of the three best players from Calcutta in the initial rounds where 64 schools from the country participated before the finals in Goa in February.

Coaches from the Manchester United Soccer School tested 30 shortlisted players at the five-day Goa camp to pick the final XI. The parameters included physical attributes, individual skills, match situations and performances in actual matches.

“It (Goa) was my first tour out of the state,” Arko said. Rajib has had the experience of touring the state playing football but “never out of the country in a plane… and it feels a little scary”.

“Football is a great leveller,” said Smarajit Jana, chief adviser at Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee and principal of the Sonagachi Research and Training Institute. “We are happy that Rajib and Arko have done so well… not because of any quota but by dint of their performance. Now that our boys are going places, others want to join the football league. We hope society, the government and corporate houses will help these talents that have risen from a stigmatised community.”

“Man U, Man U!” It comes naturally to Arko but Rajib too is getting into the groove despite being a “rival fan”. “We hope we get to meet and shake hands with Rooney! Also, Giggs and Evra…”

They talked in the dreamy way of teens when Metro caught up with them on Monday — before their flight to Old Trafford on April 25.

Fries and football

As they spoke, Arko fidgeted in his seat and kept looking at the clock. “Sorry, I have to return fast and fry the telebhajas… they’ll go stale. It’s summer and sales are down. My mom has taken up an ayah’s job to make ends meet and I have to do the telebhajas all by myself,” he said.

The tough life that this Class IX student lives mirrors his inexhaustible passion for football. He wakes up sharp at 6.30am and heads from his single-room home for the football ground at the Baranagar park. After the morning practice session, he attends the neighbourhood school and tries to spare some time from the daily grind for “a bit of training” in the evening. “But it’s not always possible to leave mom to do all the work…. I coat slices of veggies in a batter before mom puts them in hot oil. I also manage the cash box.”

Arko thanks his father, who died of liver cancer four years ago, for introducing him to football. “I was about five when my father started taking me to Baranagar Sporting Club. He wanted to become a footballer.”

“I always dreamt of becoming a footballer but never imagined I would get such a big opportunity,” he said.

His mom took over the telebhaja business after his father’s death. “We make anything between Rs 100 and Rs 300 a day.”

“My mother has never seen me play. Since money is a big factor in our life, she scolds me whenever the going gets tough. She would say it’s getting difficult for her to pull through and pay for my daily travel to Kalyani to play. I’ve been going there for a year to practise because the grounds are better.”

“Instead of taking autos, I walk to the Dakshineswar railway station from home and again from the station to the field. I bought boots and shorts with the money I saved,” said Arko, who sometimes lands at the local clubhouse or his uncle’s home to watch football on TV — especially Ronaldo, the former Manchester United man and current star of Real Madrid.

“Ronaldo is God!” declared the boy who calls himself a striker with “shooting at the goal” as his strongest point. In the same breath, he announced his loyalty: “Manchester United… my favourite. I couldn’t believe it when I qualified (for the training).”

“My friends have asked me to bring some dollars. They want to see what it looks like. I hope to play for a good club after my Manchester United training… my mother won’t have to struggle anymore and she won’t mind if I spend more time in the playing field,” he said.

Homely and honest

Rajib started at Durbar Football Academy, an initiative of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee for children of sex workers from across Bengal. He lives in Durbar’s Baruipur home for children but is currently with his mother at her Sonagachi house before leaving for England.

It hasn’t been easy for him to convince his mother about pursuing his passion for football. “She thinks I am wasting time playing games. She would rather have me study and do some odd jobs to earn money,” said the teenager who had worked as a helper at a bank for two years but quit to dedicate more time to the sport.

“The money I earned helped me buy football boots,” he said, sporting a red Manchester United T-shirt, though he is a die-hard Liverpool fan and a devotee of Chelsea’s Brazilian winger Oscar.

“Some said ‘Manchester’ out of fear when the Manchester United coach quizzed us in Goa but I honestly told him that I’m a fan of Liverpool. The coach laughed.”

Rajib’s strength is in the “right wing” but he is comfortable in “any position”.

The boy prefers staying at home, listening to Yo Yo Honey Singh and watching football on TV at a neighbour’s home to roaming the streets of Sonagachi. “People in the para respect me because I don’t have any bad habits.”

“I want to take my mother out of this area and keep her in a house elsewhere. For that, I have to work hard and think beyond the training at Manchester United.” He is attending English classes for the trip and because “it will help me later in anything I wish to do”.

He recalled the lump-in-throat moment when he sprained his leg during the last leg of the trials in Goa. “I couldn’t play the final match. I was upset and thought I’d be disqualified… but I made it.”

What message do you have for Arko and Rajib? Tell ttmetro@abpmail.com