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Section : Youth

Football as rehab: Slumkids beat the odds to learn sport
A lot of talent from neglected backgrounds is waiting to be spotted. They are fighting hard to make inroads. Few taste success.

By Fozia Yasin

NEW DELHI: He was just another slumdog on a slippery slope of self-destruction. That was seven years ago when Peter Sylvester spotted him sleeping in a dustbin. A motivational speaker who also runs a football academy for underprivileged kids, Sylvester taught him the game and, simply, in his own words, "gave him his life back."

"It began as an experiment with a few kids. Today we have more than 120 disciplined sportspersons, some of them exceptionally talented. Depriving them of a platform to showcase their talent is injustice," says Sylvester, founder of My Angles Academy, where these kids can practice their craft for free.

Now, football is religion for Tanjeer. The 15-year-old is a hero in his jhuggi colony: Indira Camp No. 4, Vikaspuri, home to thousands of migrant laborers from Bihar and UP. His father works as a daily wage labourer and his mother is a housemaid. Dressed in a jersey as he walks through the shabby bylanes, the young footballer gathers approving glances.

Like millions worldwide, Tanjeer is watching the World Cup. But unlike many, he doesn't cheer for Brazil or Argentina. "They have been the winners. I wish the underdog wins this time," he says.

In these parts of tumbledown west Delhi, Sylvester has helped hundreds of slumkids in embracing soccer for succour. But the noble-hearted venture has faced hurdles at every step. "The local playground is off-limits for the poor. We have to start very early so that we pack up before the colony residents wake up. We begin at 3.30 am and pack up at 6. It becomes an issue if they find these kids practice there," Slyvester says.

There have been other problems to deal with as well. To begin with, convincing poor parents, who would want their children to join the workforce, instead of wasting time on play, has been tough. This is a gender-friendly venture and many girls join the practice.

Hope keeps them going, Sylvester says. "Tanjeer is the reward of my persistence. So are Raj Kumar and Anand," he says.

Recently Tanjeer was selected to train at the prestigious Liverpool International Football Academy in Pune. Raj Kumar, 15, and Anand, 12, have been picked up to train in France's FC Metz Club.

For Kumar's father, a manual labourer, the idea that a game could be a life-changer, was hard to believe. "After I took my game seriously, he noticed the transformation in me. I stopped using foul language. I was more disciplined and worked hard on my studies too. Today, father says he's proud of me. No one in the family knows much of the world outside the slum. Yet I am going abroad," the young boy says.

A lot of talent from neglected backgrounds is waiting to be spotted. They are fighting hard to make inroads. Few taste success. One of those who got lucky is Homkant Surandase from Nagpur.

Homkant speaks about his journey from a runaway kid to becoming an 'Ambassador for Hope' to Brazil. He would have been 14 or so when he first kicked the ball, in a 'jhuggi-jhopdi' match. That kick got him hooked.

With farmer suicides common in the area, his landless-labourer parents wanted him to join the workforce, and not 'waste time with the ball'. Under pressure, Homkant says he escaped to Nagpur.

In the city, he did odd jobs: worked at a tea stall, washed cars, but didn't quit the game. As luck would have it, he was picked up by Slum Soccer, an organization that uses the game to reach out to homeless children, kids of sex workers among others. On Monday, Homkant, now 22, left for Brazil to represent India at the FIFA Football for Hope festival, as an 'ambassador of hope'.

Activists lament the lack of government apathy towards sports in general. "These success stories are an outcome of the efforts by a handful people who are genuinely passionate about the cause. The story will be different if sports gets significance and government puts a structure in place that also incorporates the talent pool from the underprivileged," says founder Slum Soccer, Vijay Barse.

Nonetheless, thanks to a bunch of committed individuals, hundreds of slumkids are kicking football for sheer joy and, in turn, carving success stories

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