x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Slum Soccer giving the underprivileged a kick-start in life skills

A non-profit born in 2003 in the Indian city of Nagpur is putting more than 1,000 players through their paces on a soccer field and then instilling life skills off the field.

Children participate in a soccer event in Chennai sponsored by Slum Soccer. The game is an effective way to teach its players life, leadership and communication skills.
Children participate in a soccer event in Chennai sponsored by Slum Soccer. The game is an effective way to teach its players life, leadership and communication skills.

NEW DELHI // As a boy, when Homkant Surandase would play soccer with the children in his neighbourhood, he found he needed an auxiliary skill as important as dribbling or passing: knowing how to repair a punctured ball.

From bicycle-repair shops in his village of Mer, in the state of Maharashtra, Mr Surandase learnt the art of patching up a bladder and reusing a ball.

This was important. Mr Surandase and his friends lived in the slums of Mer, and they were lucky they had a ball at all, he said.

"We used to play barefoot on the streets," Mr Surandase, 22, recalled. "Then, when we heard about a district-level tournament happening 30 kilometres away, we thought we may as well try out. It was just to pass the time. We had no bigger ambitions."

The tournament changed Mr Surandase's life. Organised by Slum Soccer, a non-profit born in 2003 in the city of Nagpur, the tournament provided the exposure he needed to represent Maharashtra at the national level in 2008. His parents did not want him to play the sport, so he sneaked away from home to participate.

After acing a Slum Soccer trial in Nagpur in 2008, Mr Surandase made the Indian team playing the Homeless World Cup in Melbourne later that year. "That sort of thing completely changes your perspective, broadens your vision," said Mr Surandase, who is now studying for a college degree in physical education and coaching Slum Soccer players in Nagpur. "Dreams you could never even have had before, you can start having now."

Across India, Slum Soccer works in six states, in urban and semiurban slums, putting more than 1,000 players - most children, although some are as old as 50 - through their paces on a soccer field and then instilling life skills off the field.

"And every year since 2007, we have sent a team to the Homeless World Cup," said Akshay Madhavan, the head of operations at Slum Soccer. "Last year, we placed 33rd out of 64 countries. In fact, our team does a lot better in international football than the real Indian team!"

The founder of Slum Soccer, Vijay Barse, was a physical education instructor in a Nagpur college when, in 2001, he took shelter under a tree during a rainstorm.

"I was standing there for around 25 minutes, watching some kids kick around a broken plastic bucket on a muddy ground," Mr Barse said. "They were enjoying themselves so much, not worried about anything. I remember thinking that even if these kids were on drugs or alcohol off the field, at least they left those habits behind when they were playing on the field."

When he reached his college that day, Mr Barse grabbed a soccer ball, drove back on his scooter to the ground, and presented it to the boys. It struck him then, he said, that he could organise soccer tournaments for slum children in Nagpur - an idea that turned, eventually, into the Slum Soccer programme.

Since 2007, Slum Soccer has been a part of a worldwide network called streetfootballworld, run by a partner organisation to Fifa, the sport's world governing body. "Through streetfootballworld, we've been eligible to get grants under the Football for Hope programme, which is our main source of funding," Mr Madhavan said.

The annual grant, of about US$25,000 (Dh91,832), is used to buy balls, shoes, soccer kits and training cones, and to pay the salaries of 40 full-time coaches, such as Mr Surandase.

Slum Soccer's administrators, including Mr Madhavan, are still volunteers. Mr Madhavan works a day job as a deputy manager at the automotive firm Ashok Leyland.

"The kind of demographic we target includes people who are recovering drug addicts or alcoholics, children of commercial sex workers in Kolkata, kids in juvenile remand homes and slum kids," Mr Madhavan said.

In the city of Chennai, where he is based, Slum Soccer rustles up children who have been living by the sea, in transitional housing, ever since their homes were destroyed by the 2004 tsunami.

"Somehow we find an open space, in whatever town we're in, and play there," Mr Madhavan said. In Chennai, that is the beach; in Nagpur, it is a plot of ground that Slum Soccer has managed to buy.

The game of soccer is an effective way to teach its players "life skills, leadership skills, and communication skills", Mr Madhavan said. "And it can break down gender barriers that exist in a lot of these areas."

Until two years ago, for instance, Ujjwala Khadatkar had never touched a soccer ball. Her mother frowned upon girls playing sport, and in her town of Hinganghat, a couple of hours from Nagpur, she had no opportunities to either.

Then, on an idle afternoon, when she was standing near an impromptu game being played in her neighbourhood, the ball rolled towards her. "So I just kicked it back, and it felt so good," said Ms Khadatkar, 24. Having talked her mother into letting her play, Ms Khadatkar signed up with Slum Soccer, and she played in the Homeless World Cup last year in Paris. Now, as she finishes an undergraduate degree in history, she coaches Slum Soccer players in Hinganghat.

"Before Slum Soccer, I hadn't even talked much to other boys, let alone make friends with them or play a sport with them," she said. "I used to be afraid. And then, after joining, I started to feel much less afraid. I learnt that, even playing among boys, a girl can get ahead."

ssubramanian@thenational.ae