Empty beer bottles and crushed sachets of whiskey that lie strewn around the stands at the Bengaluru East football ground every morning when local children arrive for soccer training sessions are a sign of the close existence of alcoholism and soccer in the local community. Gang violence is also close at hand.
Located behind the Bengaluru East railway station, the ground is a soccer landmark where hundreds of teams have been playing an annual ‘Mini World Cup’ around Independence Day for the past 60 years. The eastern part of the city, once a part of the British Cantonment, has a special connection with soccer. Players in the region – drawn mostly from impoverished homes where fathers are often alcoholics and mothers the only breadwinners as domestic workers – have a special way with the soccer ball, a samba coursing through their veins whenever they manage to stay away from addiction to drugs, alcohol, pornography and gang rivalries.
Last September, a 27-year-old soccer player with links to local mafia gangs was knifed to death at the main football stadium in central Bengaluru in a revenge attack with origins in the eastern part of the city. The deceased was also the manager of a local team that finished second in the `Mini World Cup’ a few years ago.
Changing the narrative
In this cesspool, an initiative by a former soccer player – with first-hand experience of the struggles of those from East Bengaluru slums – and a bunch of young boys he plucked out with the help of an NGO has offered a glimmer of hope for close to two decades now.
Over the last 18 years, soccer-player-turned-coach D Satya Raj, 48, working in coordination with child development specialist and director of the Freedom Project of India, Anita Kanaiya, 50, has created a football platform for kids and youngsters that provides them some reprieve from the seemingly inescapable reality of their existence.
The Sport for Life programme, supported by the Freedom Project of India and spearheaded by Satya Raj, first started at the Bengaluru East football ground in 2004 as a small venture for five to seven local boys, but has now transformed into a grassroots soccer programme that currently trains over 900 kids across seven playgrounds and 14 areas in the east and the north-east parts of the city. Over 5,000 kids from slum communities across east Bengaluru have so far been part of the grassroots soccer training initiative.
The project flourishes
With such a soccer ecosystem in place for a while now, polished players from the project are currently playing across soccer leagues in Bengaluru and even in age group leagues like the I-League. The project has seven C-Division league teams now, players are finding their way into state teams and as many as 12 of the youths who joined the camps have become coaches themselves, a second and third line of coaches to help Satya Raj keep the programme going as it expands to newer parts of Bengaluru.
“We started with one team and now we have seven teams. More than 250 boys participated in the leagues this year. They are playing across the leagues. C division, B division, A division, and even in the Super Division we have players,” he adds.
Freedom Project’s Anita Kanaiya says, “It started with Satya wanting to give back and realising that the sport had made a huge difference in how his life got transformed. He believed that he would definitely find talent that we could encourage professionally.”
“In the first year itself, he managed to get one boy to play for the state. The state teams look at over 5,000 players, mostly from good clubs, people who have invested money in training, and us who are just invested in the lives of the boys,” she says. “He ended up getting at least one boy from our community teams to play for the state under-18 teams every year or every other year.”
Tackling personal challenges
The main coach at the Bengaluru East ground every morning these days is Satish Kumar S, 31, one of the first players from the community who came to the project as a 14-year-old. Satish, who played for the Karnataka under-18 team before injuries laid him low, is a certified `C’ level coach. “Satish used to be smoking all the time. He quit smoking and became a very good footballer. His father is an alcoholic and he has changed. He knows that his son is a good player. The fighting in their home has reduced,” Satya Raj points out.
Chetan, 21, entered the programme as an 18-year-old to escape a drug habit and make a life for himself. He has progressed to becoming a player and a `D’ level coach who assists Satish in training sessions by tending to the youngest players who begin at 6.30 am and need to leave by 7.30 am to be in school.
“I came to football very late in my life. I had dropped out of school and was in the wrong company. I was smoking joints and roaming around without any aim. After coming to play football my outlook has changed. I understand things about life. I never knew earlier what was important for my life,” said Chetan, who is a `C’ division player for a Sport for Life team.
“Chetan used to be beaten up by his father always, so he would go home only after 1 am. He would go stoned. We provided him space in our office during the Covid-19 pandemic and then his father brought him food. When I met his mother, she was crying and saying she did not expect that he would change, that she thought he would die on the streets,” Satya Raj said.
Beating poverty, domestic violence, drugs
“Almost all the kids are from the slums. The big issues are domestic violence, single parents, abandoned children looked after by grandparents, alcohol and life in poverty in a slum – without a proper house and in temporary shelters – and all the things that happen in this setup, like drugs, violence, gang stuff,” Kanaiya said.
“Through the sport, we are giving the children lessons in life skills. I tell them my story, we tell them that it may not make your entire life, but you can have pride. We tell them there is a difference between the profile of a rowdy or addict and that of a sportsman,” Satya Raj explains.
Youths who have been picked to be full-time coaches have gone on to complete their schooling through the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS). “We have helped with their tuition. We have put our coaches through NIOS. They were dropouts and felt the shame of not having a degree, nor did they have the motivation to go back. We had the last two finishing NIOS in April this year – Class 10 and Class 12 dropouts. As many as 17 kids have done this,” Kanaiya shares.
One of the mandates for the coaches in the programme is to visit the schools and homes of the boys registered in their soccer camps every day and to ensure that they attend school.
The success of some of the older boys in changing their lives through soccer encourages families to ensure that their wards remain in the programme, the coaches say. “They have assumed responsibilities in their families. Their parents are at peace,” says Satya Raj, who himself lived a life on the brink as a young man.
“There are many kids from our teams who have died and many have become rowdies, but there are also boys from our team who have completed their graduation and gone on to become employed. We cannot change everyone, but we do what is possible,” he says.
Satya Raj played for several local teams in Bengaluru in the 1990s – CIL, the Karnataka State Police, Telecom – but teetered on the brink of alcoholism and the local gang culture as he saw the sun setting on his soccer career. The chance to guide youngsters through soccer has given him a second chance to use football to transform lives – something he felt was missing when he was a player.
“In 2004, I used to go to Doddigunta (near the Bengaluru East ground) and knock on the doors at 5 am. The boys would have roamed around all night and would be fast asleep. If you knocked on the doors at 5 am, you could get only five or seven players. I started coaching at Bangalore East with them,” Satya Raj recounts. “The boys embroiled in rowdyism and addictions were also very good footballers, but they did not have any guidance. I started giving them practice every day. They were playing only in East Bangalore. I wanted to take them to another level.”
In 2012, Satya Raj got the Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) C-certificate coaching licence. “I stopped at C because I want to work with the community boys and I do not want to go and become a professional coach. If I go for B and A licences, then I cannot stay here and work for the community. I want to give these boys a life,” he says.
Lessons in life-skills
“We sometimes take the boys out for soccer clinics. We teach them drills and we tell them valuable things for their lives. We sit and talk about how to battle life and careers, how to manage money, how to talk to elders. We have been seeing gradual changes in the families,” the coach says.
“In the beginning, we had to build a relationship, but now everyone knows about our programme. Now people are coming directly or sometimes even indirectly. There is a lot of word of mouth and many of the kids bring their friends. They have to come voluntarily because they have to change their entire lifestyle,” he explains.
Local politicians, who tend to push youths into violence for political ends, pose another challenge. “In many areas, people do not accept us and we have to prove ourselves. There is a lot of influence of politics in the communities where youths are drawn to political work through rowdyism. These are big challenges. We face threats,” Satya Raj adds.
Love comes in the way too with many youths often eloping with young girls. “We always advise the boys about the place of love and relationships in their lives. They think that wearing nice clothes and colouring their hair and looking nice is what love is about. We tell them that they must first look at themselves and the background they come from. Do they have food to eat at home, do they have soap to wash. When there is nothing at home, what is the use of love? It is only another addiction,” Satya Raj says.
Every year the Freedom Project of India provides the kids attending their camps in the city with a soccer kit that includes shoes, stockings, vests and shorts. “It is not like they must represent India in football. Through sports they must have an education, value for money, for family. This is what we teach them. If you see, only 11 players can play for India but there are a million people who play football in India,” he says.
One of the promising players currently at the camp is Sudeep Chandrappa or Appu, 14, who trains at a camp run by one of the younger Freedom Project coaches Mahendran, 22, in the Jay Mahal area. The son of a domestic worker and the youngest of six siblings, Appu has set his eyes on being a football player. “It makes me very happy to be on the football field. I want to be a full-time player,” says the lad who plays for Bengaluru Strikers in the U-15 I-League.