For Akhilesh Pal, born and raised in the squalor of a Nagpur slum, receiving a schooling was a mirage. Twenty years old, without hope or prospects, he would spend his days staying under police radars, smoking ganja and drinking with friends—mostly small-time gangsta types. They played cards at the edge of a college ground—the closest they knew they would ever get to one—gambling and beating each other to pulp, often over a rupee or two. Apprehensive of the threat they thought he posed to them, people distrusted him and he them. Yes, life went on for Akhilesh—like it does for millions like him on streets and backalleys all over the country.
Until one day, the ballgame changed. Vijay Barse, an elderly college sports instructor, gathered his courage, approached the gang and asked them if they ever played any sport. “We rudely asked him, what has sports ever done for anybody,” Akhilesh recalls. They told him that making money was all that interested them, and if he paid them, they’d do any job for him. The gent offered them Rs 30 and a football and told them to start playing. “We thought he was joking and told him to pay us first! He did that and we played for more than an hour,” Akhilesh says. That day’s football, he says, opened a window in his bleak world.
This arrangement went on for a week, and then the instructor stopped paying them. By then, though, Akhilesh and his friends were hooked. Finding a steady job at a lowly, depressing bar weaned him away from the game for a time. It took a fortuitous encounter to draw him back. While accompanying friends to a football academy, Akhilesh thought he recognised the man in charge. It was Vijay Barse, the benefactor from before.
In 2000, Barse had launched a campaign to save playgrounds from builders by getting poor children to come play in them. Realising the potential positives to be had—beyond impeding rampant construction—he expanded the scope of his work to getting young people involved in active sports. “It would help them move away from crime and drugs,” Barse says. He chose football because it is the sport of the poor. All you require is a ball.
The idea gained momentum and in 2001, the first slum football tournament was held; 128 slum teams participated. It caught on, branched out to districts around Nagpur, became a state and then a national tournament. Today, an Indian team participates in the annual Homeless World Cup and Akhilesh Pal is one of its brightest stars. He captained the team at the World Cup in Rio de Janeiro in 2010. The experience gave him a sense of self-worth and won him new-found acceptance in society. Now 32, Akhilesh works in a chemist’s store and coaches children from Nagpur’s red-light area. “They need guidance. I know that what people from the slums need the most is direction in life,” he says.
In the home of Indian football, a career in the game is a natural aspiration. And Calcutta’s slum inhabitants are no strangers to cherished dreams of playing on the world stage. For a select few, that wish is about to be granted after West Bengal’s 4-1 triumph over Gujarat in the final of the national Slum Soccer Championship in Bangalore in February. Thirty players were shortlisted from the tournament, eight of whom will be chosen to represent India at the Homeless World Cup in Mexico in October.
Mohammed Salahuddin, 16, the son of a sex worker, is one of Calcutta’s stars. “I grew up in a slum. We are very poor, and I had to drop out of school,” he says. “I used to play on the roads. My friends had bad habits. Without any education, I had no hope and I knew my life would be that of a daily-wager. But I was saved by God.” Salahuddin found help at a shelter for children of sex workers, Rahul Vidya Niketan.
Biswajit Majumdar, a former Calcutta league footballer, is a trainer at the centre. “There is a lot of talent here,” he says. Amongst Majumdar’s wards are Sajjad Ali, Karan Paswan and Surajit Bhattacharya, who have played in the national junior tournament. And in 2011, 13-year-old Subrata Das from Sonagachi in Calcutta led India to the finals of the under-13 Asian Youth Football Championship in Iran.
“I’m training some 45 children at present,” says Majumdar, who hopes to set up a sports academy. “They are very needy children, they don’t have the money for proper nutritional food. But they are hardy and can go far with proper training.”
A square meal has also been a lifelong riddle for Wajahat Hussain. “I sometimes don’t get two full meals a day,” the 22-year-old construction worker, of Gunnaur in Kashmir’s Doda district, says. His daily labours wear him out, but a kickabout after work is food for his soul. As part of the Jammu and Kashmir team at the Bangalore tournament, Wajahat travelled afar for the first time, made friends from all over India, and broadened his perspective. It may not entirely lift him out of a life of drudgery, but, who knows, perhaps he could become a football coach one day.
Like Shahnaz Qureshi did. Born in a Nagpur slum, the 20-year-old dreamt of a jetsetting career as an air-hostess. But where would the money come from? Her father abandoned her mother, a domestic help, four months after she was born. A football player of promise, Shahnaz was spotted by Barse as a teenager. She represented India in Rio de Janeiro in 2010. The flight to Brazil was emotional. It was her first time among the clouds she had long admired from below. Now a college student, she doubles, in between her studies, as a football coach.
Sawan Nigam’s journey is no less interesting. While signing up for the slum football tourney, Sawan listed his address in an affluent area of Ujjain. When Barse went to check on him one night, he couldn’t find Sawan at his stated domicile. “Asking around, I was pointed to the figure of a lad sleeping on the roadside,” Barse says. Sawan, who repaired punctured tyres and slept by the road, played in the Homeless World Cup in Melbourne in 2008 and then trained as a coach. “I’m a football coach now. The people who used to call me ‘oye Sawan’ address me as ‘sir’ now,” he says.
In all the world’s slums, the beautiful game fuels dreams of escape. In most cases, though, life catches up with the dreamers. Barse rues that at least 60 per cent of his wards are forced to give up too early. But football’s a game of hope. And as the chosen 30 training for Mexico in October can testify, dreams sometimes do come true.