Vishnu Varma spends an afternoon with organisers and players of a four-year-old local league developing football at the grassroot level.
At the edge of a carefully manicured ground, Sandeep Kumar, 25, stands with a solemn face as few children wearing bright orange jerseys go about their drills. Wearing dark shades on an uncomfortably hot September afternoon, Kumar monitors the children as they practice their dribbles and passes. Kumar has a chequered past, but none of that seemed to weigh on the 25-year-old’s mind under the unforgiving sun.
“In my childhood, I used to beg at traffic signals and sift through garbage. It was a phase when I was also addicted to drugs. But football changed all that,” says Kumar, who flits between the role of a student as well as a trainer, at My Angels Academy, a trust that works to empower slum children in Delhi.
At present, Kumar and Sylvester Peter, who runs the organisation, are involved in training young kids at the Delhi Youth League (DYL), a competitive youth football league that kicked off on Sunday at Kapashera, tucked away in the south-western corner of Delhi.
The DYL, a brainchild of Paul Schuttenbelt, a Dutch expat, brings together youngsters from diverse backgrounds to play a competitive football tournament. In India, where football has always played second fiddle to cricket, events like the DYL are a harbinger of hope for the game.
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Schuttenbelt, who has organised a similar league in Hanoi in the past, believes India’s football scene lacks both soft and hard infrastructure.
“It’s a matter of time. You don’t become a footballing nation overnight. The infrastructure, I mean the hard and soft infrastructure is not there. The fact that as a private initiative, I am organising this…this should happen all over India. And it should not happen by me. It should happen by the football authorities (sic),” says Schuttenbelt.
However, for Kumar and co, the league presents itself as a challenge to sharpen their football skills over the span of eight months. For many children, who live in dilapidated slums often without TVs to watch matches, the league is a stepping stone to realizing their ambition of playing for the country.
Anand Kumar, 13, who was the top scorer last season with 53 goals in 15 games, is a big fan of Real Madrid striker Christiano Ronaldo. For Anand, who aspires to play like Ronaldo, laurels have already started flowing in. Earlier this year, Anand, after being selected through a tournament, visited Metz in France, home to the FC Metz, a second league football team in that country.
“Football keeps me fit, helps me in controlling my anger and cultivates friendships,” said Anand with a grin.
The 13-year-old, along with his peers, wakes up at 3:30 am in the morning to practice football at a small ground near their slum. They don’t get to play in the evenings after school as the ground gets occupied by cricket players and occasional drunkards. The Angels Academy is also running a campaign on radio to get a permanent room in the slum from which they could operate.
Despite all the hurdles, the 25-year-old Kumar is optimistic that good times will come.
“One of our students, Thanzeer, has given a trial for Salgaocar FC, and is training for other clubs too. He was selected for a foreign academy, but due to financial constraints, he couldn’t join. He wants to play for India and I hope his wish becomes true,” said Kumar.