Street children compete for a berth in the Indian team for the Homeless World Cup, 2013, to be played in Poland

The Dr. B.R. Ambedkar stadium in Delhi was on fire with jubilant enthusiasm on three days in the third week of December as excited children showcased their skills with the football to fulfil their dreams of making it big in the soccer world. The fact that differentiates these matches to other tournaments is that the children are street children playing for a berth in the Indian team for the Homeless World Cup, 2013 to be played in Poland.

The matches were organised by Slum Soccer, a Nagpur-based non-profit outfit that scouts for football talents amidst street children for the World Cup tournament. “My father Vijay Barse began this journey way back in 1999 to instil confidence among underprivileged children. We registered ourselves in 2001,” says Abhijeet Barse, executive officer of Slum Soccer. The sight of street children kicking up a torn plastic bucket on a rainy day inspired the senior Mr. Barse to cash on the huge talent resource hidden in almost 170 million homeless people in India, a sizeable number of which are children. He identified passion for sports as the focal point around which Slum Soccer could weave its social mission – “development of and development through football”.

Abhijeet says, “Sports can bring about a contrast. I have seen the transformation.” His words find a resonant echo in one of the players, Sohail Khan’s confident assertion. “I am the child of a sex worker and football is my life now. I dream, breathe and eat football. I wish to make it big in life,” Sohail says while wiping his sweat, packing up his bag for the day.

“We mixed sports and social initiative because sports have this unique ability of binding people. And at Slum Soccer, we wish to bind the marginalised with the mainstream,” Abhijeet points out.

Football was an instant choice for the outfit because it is cheap, fun and popular. Within a very short span of time, Slum Soccer graduated from connecting passion for football in Nagpur to connecting with players in West Bengal, Karnataka and Kashmir. “We wish to and shall expand to States like Bihar, too,” says Abhijeet, adding “we aim to make slum soccer a platform of community investment. We use football exercises to discuss issues like nutrition, HIV, AIDS, etc. as against doing the same via classroom rote teaching. We wish to produce players who go back to their community and spread the word.”

Shahnaz Quireshi, a coach in Nagpur now, had a tough time fighting it out as a Muslim girl to make a room for herself in football. Though thrown out of home, her commitment took her to Germany where she trained to become a coach. She now actively mobilises members from her community and in nearby slums to play the game.

Slum Soccer brings in coaches from various countries at least twice a year to train its own coaches. It is working with groups like International Children Football Alliance and UK Sports. Abhijeet, however, rues the absence of recognition in the country, “While Street Football World, a FIFA-CSR initiative, selected Slum Soccer on their board and we bagged the 30 position in the Homeless World Cup by winning the Community Cup in 2011, we are not even recognised by regular football associations.”

Finance is also a major issue to deal with some logistical bottlenecks.

Johnson from Karnataka shares his aspiration to become a professional football player like Ronaldo. Asif from Kashmir wishes to become an inspiration for others as a big player some day. The son of a sex worker, Vishwajeet Nandi from West Bengal beams, “We can fight and defeat almost anyone.”

Imraan from Kashmir, who was falsely implicated by the police and taken into custody for two days on the charge of stone pelting in 2010, is an inspiration for others today. He trained with an Argentine coach for a year in Brazil and came back to the Valley to not just play but help unite players across the terrain. Son of a labourer, Imraan asserts, “There is future in football but nothing in stone pelting.”

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