Nine teenagers from the city are headed to Brazil to represent India at the Street Child World Cup 2014 held ahead of the FIFA World Cup

There’s a commotion in the dressing room. Players run about combing their hair, putting on socks and fastening shoelaces. But Hashim is relaxed. With his socks pulled up to his knees, and jersey neatly tucked into his shorts, he walks to the mirror and arranges his hair like a David Beckham Mohawk. He then strides confidently into the football ground for a practice session. Hashim is among the nine children who will represent India from the Airtel—Karunalaya Team at the Street Child Football World Cup 2014 in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. Football has changed him, thanks to the game, there’s new purpose to his life.

To be held from March 28, the second edition of the World Cup will bring together 15 teams of street children from 19 countries to compete for the title. As the defending champion, team India has a huge responsibility. Are they nervous? “No,” they chorus. “What should we fear? Only those who don’t know the game should be afraid,” says player Ashok. T. Gopinath adds “Veri thanama practise practice panrom — we are practising hard. We will win it.”

The teenagers have all been rescued from the streets by Karunalaya, an NGO. Each of them has a heart-wrenching past. They’ve been neglected by their families, gone through extreme physical violence, sexual abuse… Most of them are those who ran away from home, alone and confused, and spent countless days in trains, railway stations, and the Marina, looking for a better life, hope, and most importantly, love.

“I took off once from Karunalaya and went back to Central Station,” says Gopinath, the goalie in the team. He ran away from his grandmother’s home in Salem. But evening football sessions at the home drew him in. The game eased him into a routine and he discovered his skill at the net. Today he speaks of child rights and Right to Freedom and is even considering a future in football! “If you have talent and interest, football will take care of you,” he says.

Most boys in the team that consists of D. Kannadoss, Habib, V. Karthik, Thangamuniyandi, C. Ashok, A. Prasanth, and M. Sathish Kumar, say they want to be football players when they grow up. They practise from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. every day and in the evenings after school. Right now, they live and breathe football — Messi and Ronaldo find mention in their conversations and they are experimenting with new styles every day.

Apart from playing football for the nation, the boys have another responsibility: to make a good impression at the presentation ceremony. “We are rigorously training for the presentation,” says N. Paul Sunder Singh, the secretary of Karunalaya. “The boys will be dressed in traditional Indian costumes. One of them will be dressed as Gandhi,” he smiles. “This is going to be a life-changing experience for them,” he adds.

Outside, the sun beats down on the ground as the gangly boys kick up dust at a practice session. “I’m so excited,” exclaims Ashok. “I’ve only seen an airplane. In a few days, I will get to travel in it!”