Slum Soccer - Reaffirming football's status as the beautiful game
Football creates a different perspective for different people. For some, it means everything. For some, those 90 minutes on the field or watching their favourite team play is a way to forget their problems and focus on the thing they love the most. But for some, football is a hope. A hope to be included in the mainstream society, a hope to see themselves earn respect.
Slum Soccer, an NGO based in Nagpur, founded in 2001, has been working since the past two decades to bring underprivileged children into the mainstream with the help of the beautiful game. With centres all around the country, Slum Soccer has been working to bring about a change in a number of homeless, underprivileged, drug and alcohol addicts children.
It all started with the organization starting tournaments for the homeless and eventually, training them for the national and international competitions. India has been a regular participant at the Homeless World Cup which is held every year. Slum Soccer organizes national camps and leagues to select the team to represent the country.
Abhijit Barse, the current head of the NGO left his job in USA to continue the noble deed that his father had started years ago. Under his leadership, the organization recently won the FICCI gender diversity award for the work done by Slum Soccer in helping girls from backward families to pick themselves up through football.
Not only does the NGO focuses on the training and fitness of the academy members, it has also made imperative for all the children to pursue education. The majority of the children who come here are either dropouts or have never went to a school. By giving them education, the NGO hopes to make them confident of standing up on their own two feet.
Recently, Sportskeeda caught up with two players/trainers/coaches of Slum Soccer to have a look at their stories and how the game of football literally changed their life 180 degrees. Pankaj Mahajan (coach of the Indian team at Oslo 2017 Homeless World Cup and a player in the 2014 edition) and Shubham Patil (represented India at the Glasgow 2016 Homeless World Cup) have been two of the most recent success stories for Slum Soccer.
Football as medium for change
The duo arrive for a chat from the academy and then have a class to teach students in a government school. You can instantly see the difference that Slum Soccer has brought in them when you get to know their backgrounds. Pankaj was born in extreme poverty and an alcoholic abusive father made him leave his home at an early age.
His life was going nowhere when one day he saw his friends playing football at the organization's football ground in Bokhara, Nagpur. Pankaj started playing the game and unknowingly (just as well we all do), fell in love with the sport. From being mentally and physically abused by his father, Pankaj soon brought a change in his life through football and emerged as a leader at the centre.
Pankaj slowly climbed the ladders at the centre and was soon participating in state and national level tournaments. He represented India at the World Cup (Pankaj was the youngest member of that squad) where the nation finished at a high rank of 29. He has since spent his time coaching the younger batch and teaching kids in school.
Of identities and opportunities
Both Pankaj and Shubham have completed their coaching badges, Pankaj currently heads all the age groups at the academy whereas Shubham is in charge of the girls team. Their eyes lit up when asked about their experiences abroad when playing for the country.
The language barriers, the nervousness before taking their first flight, the issues while getting their Visa done in time; they faced a lot of hardships on their foreign trails. But the duo admit that hearing India's national anthem at the World Cup made all the struggles, sacrifices and hurdles worth it.
"Slum Soccer has given us an identity. People know us now and we are now seen as someone inspiring in our society. The respect that we have received from all corners was a thing that we never expected to achieve in our lives. The organization has given as a new lease of life and we are going to inspire many to take up the mantle," say the inspiring duo.
Both Pankaj and Shubham have planned to do their masters in sports management and are also actively attending leadership summits and various workshops in and around the country. The duo are in charge of the national camps and trials set to be held this February from which a squad will represent India in this year's Homeless World Cup.
Slum Soccer's work in building a career for the often neglected strata of society is commendable and deserves recognition and help from the All India Football Federation (AIFF). People like Pankaj and Shubham are an inspiration to many and a role model for a number of people coming from the same background.
The organization is bringing about a real change in the society through the medium of football. A change in the minds of wandered souls and often helpless minds. Examples like these reassure our beliefs in people and football being the beautiful game.