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How football is giving hope to the slum kids of Dharavi

On a regular day in the locality, one can spot swarms of young boys playing football in the limited space that Dharavi has to offer.

How football is giving hope to the slum kids of Dharavi

Srijanee D. Majumdar

Published: 16 Oct 2019 12:22 PM GMT

Living in a tiny shanty all his life never deterred 13-year-old Rohit Gaikwad from chasing his football dreams. Kids of Rohit’s age has kept the flag flying high among Dharavi’s warren of alleyways, perhaps showcasing how football could be the means to transform the lives of those living in the slum. But the social realities often clip their fledgling wings, could football help change that?

A ray of hope

Rohit is part of the next generation of Dharavi kids that could fulfil young coach Shahrukh’s dream of transforming slum children into footballers for Mumbai and later, India. 23-year-old Shahrukh Abdul was once seen as a withdrawn individual among his peers but has now grown to exhibit a mentor figure for youngsters. Raised in the same locality, Shahrukh’s story is a true testament to the talent hidden in the most unlikely corners of India beyond one’s comprehension.

Shahrukh is part of the developmental team constituting of rag pickers from Dharavi, a team that is actively associated with Bengaluru’s South United Football Club (SUFC). At a tender age of 20, he took it upon himself to train the slum children. Since then, there was no looking back. When asked whether his vision will see success in the long run, Shahrukh told The Bridge:

Yes, we live in the slums. The poor children have as much a right to play and enjoy life as rich ones do. Perhaps, that’s why we put twice as much effort. We have patience, perseverance, and energy among ourselves that keep us motivated. The kids here have a good chance to represent the state and India in the long run.

While the rest of India is going crazy over cricket, football has become the heart and soul for the children.

Helping the disadvantaged

The tight alleyways of Dharavi have witnessed the emergence of its own little Messi, Ronaldo, and Neymar. Ask the boys to name their favourite footballers, and they will pluck out names that will take you aback. On a regular day in the locality, one can spot swarms of young boys playing football in the limited space that Dharavi has to offer.

South United Sports Foundation, which is a Mumbai-based community programme, aims to use sports to introduce life skills to underserved kids. The foundation has already roped in around 50 kids from the age group five to 21 years. “We have found a lot of talent among the kids here. There is so much potential in them. One of the kids who joined us at the Dharavi developmental programme, Shahrukh, went on to become the coach. Now he coaches the kids here,” said Neharika Singh, Club Secretary of SUFC.

She, however, added that it was a challenge in the initial stage as many parents of the kids forbade them from playing football. “Kids are interested; it is generally their parents who have a problem because they expect them to take up lucrative jobs. But it is not that you are playing football and you have no future out of it, that is wrong. We have been trying to explain it to the families,” decoded Neharika.

Indian footballer Robin Singh with local kids from Dharavi at the Adidas Tango League in Mumbai.

The transformative power of play in Dharavi

Even as the golden beams of sunlight appear to radiate in a hot summer afternoon, one can only find little sunlight penetrating the tiny gaps between corrugated metal roofs and a tangle of wires that overhang the narrow streets. Like most other sports, football has to vie for attention in the cricket-plagued Dharavi, as each alley has its own stories to cherish about the difference the sport has made in their lives.

Being able to kick a ball around seems a long way away for girls in the cramped alleys of Dharavi.

From humble beginnings, the number of children coming to play football has increased over recent years. Truly, the community has so far been successful to leverage the power of sports to captivate these young minds through their love for football. Recently, global sportswear giant Adidas hosted teams from Dharavi at a football tournament, named as the Tango League. Staying true to their belief of ‘changing lives through the power of sports’, this initiative by Adidas helped the Dharavi kids take one step closer to their dreams.

'If a boy can, why not a girl?'

While the fruits of the collective effort have yielded shining results in men’s football, even being able to kick a ball around still seems a long way away for girls in the cramped alleys of Dharavi. Social conventions and tradition, ‘football is not for girls, you have to do your housework’ are limiting, as is the support from their families. In such a tight-knit slum community that is conservative about family traditions, young girls taking up football like any professional athlete is a rare phenomenon, let alone training to become a football player. Only a few are lucky to follow their football dreams, says Shahrukh, disappointedly.

The families here don’t want their girls to come out and play. Girls should start playing football, like boys. It is good for them. If a boy can play football, why not a girl?

On being asked what he does to promote women’s football in the slums, Shahrukh says that he tries to convince people to send their girls to play, reasoning that if their parents could see him and other kids succeed and thrive in this field then definitely, they would be more open to letting the girl children play. “I also tell them about women’s progress in this discipline, about women’s participation in leagues such as the Indian Women’s League,” he added.

While each community nurtures a different relationship with the sport, what it hopes to achieve is quite the same. A sport largely played by young boys here in Dharavi, football aspires to give them the right direction and motivation.

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