Ali Johar’s eyes twinkle as he reminisces about football in Myanmar and the atmosphere that accompanied each match — people pouring in from each locality, women setting up markets selling food and drinks, and the “special programme” that awaited the winning team.
On Saturday afternoon, the 22-year-old was among 18 Rohingya refugees who walked onto a football field at the Excelsior American School in Gurgaon to participate in a match organised by Lehleh sports. They played against a private team, Arrows, and won 5-2.
The players — aged between 18 and 25 from Delhi, Hyderabad, Nuh and Jammu — included students as well as those working as shopkeepers, ragpickers and at auto repair shops.
“Cricket was not that popular, but everyone was interested in football. The World Cup generated a lot of conversation,” said Johar (22), who is the goalkeeper — a position he held back home. He is now a third-year student of political science at DU’s Bhagat Singh College.
Sabber, founder of the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative, which put together the team, said: “We have people in each state to train players. We bring them together for practice about 15 days before each match, so they can be in sync.”
“The main point was to distract the youngsters… Because of everything they have been through, their mindset was very negative… We wanted to create a positive mentality,” he added.
Another player, Mohammad Hussain (19), who lives in Nuh with his mother and works at an auto repair shop, said, “Football is the one thing that has been consistent for me through the years, through all the difficulties.” His father is still in Myanmar.
“We are also hopeful that members of our community will someday play for India and people will see us for what we are, rather than labelling us terrorists,” said Johar.