Vijay Barse still remembers that Saturday afternoon, in 2001. He had left work early, when it started to rain. Barse took shelter under a tree, when he saw something that was to change his life, and those of thousands of children: a few children from a nearby slum were kicking around a broken bucket, trying to play football. Barse often saw the same set of boys on the grounds of Nagpur’s Hislop College, where he was a sports teacher. These same boys would split the spoils of the day after picking someone’s pocket or share a bidi. “I saw their earnestness for the game and realised that, at least for the time they were playing, these boys will not pick a pocket or smoke,” says Barse.
Barse wanted to set up a match for them but none of the college boys wanted to play with them. “The social divide was a problem. That’s when I asked a journalist friend of mine to put an article in the newspaper that I was starting a district Zopadpatti Football tournament, where teams would comprise only slum dwellers.” That’s how the idea of Zopadpatti Football or Slum Soccer as it is now known, for underprivileged children, was born. The man is now the inspiration behind National Award-winning director Nagraj Manjule’s next film — a biopic on Barse. His role will be essayed by Amitabh Bachchan.
At his home in Bhokara village, Nagpur, Barse says, “I am a sports teacher. But I am not promoting the development of football. I am promoting development through football.” As Barse urges his “boys”, who are sharing a meal with him, to gobble down a dozen boiled eggs, he recounts his story.
“I was still a physical education teacher at Nagpur’s Hislop College in 2001. I organised cycle rallies and sports ground bachao andolans. I always had that streak of social work and leadership. Maybe it came from my father who was a police constable, and who I had seen fight even his senior officers for justice,” says Barse.
Originally, the plan was to enroll 32 teams from the entire district for the first ever tournament — 128 teams finally registered. But there were many hurdles. The teams had never played professionally and knew no rules. “We kept only one rule: if the football goes out of the field or physical assault happens, the player has to sit out the game.” The players had no uniforms. So Barse asked one set of players to take off their t-shirts. The bare-chested ones became one team and the ones with t-shirts, their opponents. The winning team was felicitated by local politicians and their pictures appeared in newspapers — the losing team was gifted a football by Barse. His logic? “At least until it tore off, I was certain they would keep playing. The winning team was anyway going to keep playing.”
Thus started Slum Soccer tournaments, now held across all states of the country. Two teams — one men’s and one women’s — are selected from these tournaments. They represent India at the Homeless World Cup, an international soccer competition for the similarly underprivileged, held across different countries since 2001.
In 2006, Barse retired from college and got a huge chunk of money as a retirement fund. “I used to think I work only for a few hours and get so many holidays, yet I get full payment. I felt I was getting paid more than I should and wanted to give back to society,” he says. With that money, he bought a piece of land where his organisation, Slum Soccer, now stands. Two years later, his wife Rachana also retired as a sports teacher, and handed over her money to develop the centre. What came up was a football ground, a small single-storey building which serves as a church for the community on weekends and an activity centre on weekdays, the headquarters of Slum Soccer, and his own house.
However, while his wife offered her unconditional support, it wasn’t so easy to get his son, Dr Abhijit — now the CEO of Slum Soccer — on board. In 2007, Abhijit fell out with his father, and took up a job as a research fellow in USA. “I am a pragmatic person. I question everything around me, even myself. I didn’t understand his ideals then,” he admits.
The same year, in 2007, Slum Soccer’s national tournament got covered by the BBC. The then director of the Homeless World Cup, Andy Hooks, invited Barse to South Africa, where Barse met Nelson Mandela. “I received the biggest recognition for my work that day when he put a hand on me and said, “My son, you’re doing a great job’,” says Barse, as he brushes off a tear.
In 2008, an article on Barse appeared in a New York publication, which was seen by his son. Abhijit then decided to head back home to the man whom the world was celebrating. Today, Slum Soccer runs several programmes from gender awareness to menstrual hygiene in mostly government schools, across several states, with main offices in Nagpur, Chennai and Kolkata.
Much Like Barse, his students haven’t looked back. Homkant Sundarase, the son of a marginal farmer, ran away from his village Ner in Yavatmal district, and ended up in a Slum Soccer tournament. The boy represented India at the 2008 Homeless World Cup and is now a coach. His fellow coach, Shrutika Amle, comes from a neighbourhood which frowns on girls in ‘knickers’ playing ball. The daughter of a driver, she represented India at the Homeless Soccer tournament in Amsterdam (2015) and has since travelled to France, Germany and other countries for tournaments and workshops. “I never had a passport, and had never flown in an airplane. Today I dream of representing India, of starting my own academy. Had it not been for Slum Soccer, my fate would have been otherwise,” she says.