Life is a goal

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By Slum Soccer India, which scouts for talent in slums all over the country and organises a national slum soccer tournament, has given direction to the lives of many underprivileged youngsters, finds Hemchhaya De
  • Published 19.08.12
SMART SHOOTERS: Slum footballers in Nagpur

It was a rainy Thursday morning in July. Vijay Barse, a sports instructor in Nagpur, was on his way to work. But the heavy downpour forced him to take shelter under a tree.

He heard peals of laughter behind him, and turned around to see a bunch of slum children — and some adults — playing football in the rain with a small plastic bucket. They splashed around in puddles and slipped in the mud — bespattered and bedraggled — but clearly enjoying every moment of it. An idea came to Barse in a flash. Why not create a platform for slum dwellers to hone their natural skills and passion for the game?

He went back to the slum in Amaravati a few days later and traced the group of players. He asked them if they’d like to play a “serious” match with another team, and they readily agreed. Another ragtag team from a nearby slum was formed. And the first match of Slum Soccer — fondly called Jhoparpatti Football, founded by Vijay Barse in 2001 — was played between the Vasantnaik slum and the Dharampet Gadga slum in Nagpur.

Soon, it was a regular tournament. “We asked for participation of slum teams from across Nagpur through the local media and ended up with teams from 128 slums,” remembers Barse, who has now retired from Nagpur’s Hislop College. “Eventually, adjoining districts expressed their desire to organise a district-level jhoparpatti football tournament.”

The games — played barefoot — led to the birth of a voluntary organisation called Slum Soccer India. Headquartered in Nagpur, Slum Soccer brings football and slum dwellers and homeless people together.

The National Slum Soccer Tournament was kicked off in 2002 — and the 10th games were held in Bangalore in February, says Abhijeet Barse, Vijay’s son and CEO of Slum Soccer India. Fifteen teams participated in the tournament, sponsored among others by the Abhinav Bindra Foundation.

Currently, Slum Soccer India is busy selecting candidates from all over India for the men’s and women’s teams to represent the country at this year’s Homeless World Cup (HWC) in Mexico. The HWC Foundation, set up in 2003, supports 73 international partner organisations whose goal is to improve lives through football. Slum Soccer has been taking part in it since 2007 — and India ranks 33 among the participating nations.

This year, three players from West Bengal — Salauddin, Surajit Bhattacharya and Shilpa De, all children of sex workers at Sonagachhi, Calcutta — will take part in the HWC. The children have been trained by Biswajit Majumdar, a football coach working with Durbar, a non-profit organisation helping sex workers in Bengal. “The game does wonders for underprivileged children,” says Majumdar.

Slum Soccer got in touch with Durbar this year, asking it to send players to the selection tests in Nagpur. A large part of the expenses for the trip will be borne by Slum Soccer, whose patrons include English football club Tottenham Hotspur, Coaches across Continents, HWC and other international organisations.

The Slum Soccer calendar remains busy through the year. There was a coach training programme earlier this year supported by the English Premier league. The organisation also participated in the Great British Sports Festival held in association with the British High Commission in March. It was also officially recognised by the Maharashtra State Sports Council for Sports and Games this year.

But the group gets little support — financial or otherwise — from national sports authorities. “The response has been cold,” rues Abhijeet. “Football as a tool of development is a concept alien to them.”

Slum Soccer, however, has several success stories to relate. Take Homkant Surandase, who is from Ner village in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district, known for its high incidence of farmers’ suicides. “I have seen how farmers were driven to killing themselves because of bad crops and heavy debts,” he says.

In 2008, Surandase, son of a daily wage earner, heard about jhoparpatti football and fought all odds to make it to the national slum soccer tournament. His family opposed it, but the boy — then all of 16 — was determined. “I had nothing to look forward to in life but football,” he says. Today, Surandase earns a living as a Slum Soccer coach and plays for Nagpur leagues.

Abhijeet says his organisation makes all effort to hire players from slums as coaches. “We are also in the process of getting some private Indian companies to support us so that these players could get employment with them.”

Disha Lohabare, also a coach with Slum Soccer, is another success story. “When I visit slums to encourage other children, I see that they all want to become like me,” says a beaming Lohabare, whose father was a scrap vendor. Today Lohabare is confident that she is going to become a mainstream player one day.

Abhijeet points out that it’s difficult to get women from the slums to play soccer. “There is stiff resistance from parents who want their girls to just sit at home and help them out or marry them off at an early age,” he says. “But with our national women’s championship launched last year, we have finally made some headway.”

Surandase coaches both boys and girls in slums at Koradi near Nagpur. “Initially, their parents objected — and the children were not comfortable playing with one another either,” he recalls. “The girls were also unwilling to wear shorts. But when I taught them to focus on the game, they overcame their inhibitions.” Now some of Koradi’s players take part in school-division football tournaments in the under-16 category. “They are all confident young men and women,” says Surandase, who also believes that playing football has helped slum children stay away from addiction and crime.

As for Surandase, football has given a new meaning to his life. He was first selected for the Slum Soccer National Tournament and then for the 2008 Melbourne Homeless World Cup.

His confidence soared when he was trained by international coaches at a workshop in Nagpur organised by Slum Soccer. “My focus is on coaching now, even though I play senior and super division in Nagpur,” says Surandase, who is also pursuing a degree in physical education.

At the international matches, Surandase felt that he had finally arrived. “When they played our national anthem at the beginning of our matches, we felt proud and confident — something I’d never felt before I picked up football,” he says. “Gone are the days when I felt dispirited — I now have a direction in life.”