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They bent it like Beckham

(From left) K.V. Navnita, T.R. Harshitha, Manoj Kumar and Arbaz Pasha. Photo : Sudhakara Jain.

(From left) K.V. Navnita, T.R. Harshitha, Manoj Kumar and Arbaz Pasha. Photo : Sudhakara Jain.  

Excitement is already kicking in for the four underprivileged teenagers who will go to the Street Football World Festival in France this June

Manoj is 17 and has played a number of sports in primary school but nothing quite caught his imagination like football. “I like the feeling of running with the ball,” he says. “Nothing else gives me such happiness.” Manoj’s father drives auto-rickshaws for a living. This June, Manoj and four other children like him will travel to Lyon for the Street Football World Festival, an event for kids from disadvantaged communities that will be held alongside Euro 2016 in France. “My father told all my relatives. Everyone is happy. I had to talk to my school principal; I told her I’d be representing India at the festival. That’s as big deal,” says Manoj.

Just how big a deal you realise when you speak to Suchetha Bhat, the COO of Dream a Dream, which has sent delegations to previous editions of the Festival. “It builds tremendous confidence,” she says. “The way the children perceive themselves changes.”

At the start of every session of this after-school football programme, children are required to ‘check in’. They gather around, hand in hand, answering a few simple questions: How was your day? What made you happy? What made you unhappy? Then there’s a little prayer, and then they begin playing.

“This exercise is important,” says H. Prasanna, glancing at his wards in Bengaluru’s Kittur Rani Chennamma Stadium. “They may say: ‘My friend gifted me something today. I’m happy.’ Then they say: ‘My father came home drunk. I’m unhappy about that.’ The good thing is that they are able to share that with us. If I’m carrying this thought in my mind — that my father is drinking — without being able to share it... it’s not easy.”

Prasanna is one of 40 facilitators who helps with the programme. A state-level A Division hockey player about 10 years ago, he is now a part of Dream a Dream, a charitable trust in Bengaluru that works with underprivileged children.

Manoj Kumar, K.V. Navnita, T.R. Harshitha, and Arbaz Pasha were chosen from among 2,200 boys and girls in the football programme across 25 schools in the city. The four will travel with two ‘Young Leaders’, one of whom is Prasanna.

“We looked at who actually needed the life skills, who wanted to give something back to their community,” says Prasanna. “We conducted physical tests and then asked them: how will you manage coming to special training every day? These are the only four kids who said, ‘I will talk to my principal and convince her.’ Others said, ‘I will do something, sir’.”

Arbaz, 16, also the son of an auto-rickshaw driver, is the most reserved of the lot, his answers restricted to a few softly uttered words. His father was thrilled, says Arbaz, that his son was going to be on an aeroplane. “Arbaz is a quiet boy,” Prasanna says. “He has issues at home. He shares them with me in Urdu. I cannot understand every word, but I understand his feelings. His school has now put up a banner with his picture on it. He told me it was the happiest moment of his life.”

In contrast to her friends, Harshitha, 16, is bold and voluble. In response to one question during this little interview, she points out that a similar one had already been asked at the beginning. “I will be giving you the same answer,” she says. “You already took that down.” Harshitha’s mother works in a garment factory.

Her father worked with a real estate agent until a stroke confined him to his bed three years ago. “There are many girls in badminton and athletics, but not many in football. I wanted to set an example. Five girls from my school have now followed me into football,” she says. “People see me with new respect in my neighbourhood.”

The France-bound team only trained in the evenings until Harshitha demanded double sessions, something the coaches were against. “The others accept what the coaches tell them, but she keeps asking questions,” Prasanna says. “She wants the team to improve. I told her she had to convince the rest; and she did.”

Navnita, 15, is enthralled by the idea of going to a foreign land. She did not know where France was, but she does now. Her father has passed away and she lives with her mother and older brother. “I never thought this could happen,” she gushes. “My mother is excited; she does not let me miss a single day’s training.”

The Street Football World Festival is not a competition. The idea is to celebrate football as a force for social change, and for children from one part of the world to understand issues faced by other communities. There will be matches, but players will draw up their own rules.

The Festival’s principles of ‘football3’ — based on fair play and respect — are already in use here. If one player hurts another, the children engage in discussion to seek answers. There are no referees and points are awarded for fair play. If foul language is heard in the course of the match, the matter is brought up afterwards. The guilty party is not named, but he or she owns up. “Then we ask him or her to dance,” says Prasanna. “It’s not punishment; it’s learning.”

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Printable version | May 27, 2020 1:57:19 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/shreedutta-chidananda-on-four-youngsters-who-will-represent-india-at-the-street-football-world-festival/article8594473.ece

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