I first learned of Slum Soccer when I participated in the Homeless World Cup 2010 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I can vividly recall the men’s and women’s teams proudly cheering each other on and constantly wearing smiles no matter the score and no matter the results of their matches. It was clear that I wasn’t the only one who noted the teams’ selfless behavior when they were awarded for the best sportsmanship in the tournament. I was thrilled to begin the work in India and upon being fetched from the airport by Abhijeet Barse, I knew that we were in good hands. Working consecutively with the programs in Ghana, Liberia and India has showed me the importance of having a strong leader running the local partner program. In Ghana, we were all thrilled to work with Nana Dawarka, in Liberia Pappie Jones and in India with AB. Each of these directors persistently reached out to Nick to ensure that their programs would receive the CAC training.
In the two weeks in each location we have built great relationships with these program directors and it is clear by the end of the trainings that they feel confident with our trainings as they move their programs and coaches to the next levels. At the end of two weeks I overheard AB telling Nick that this program was the best that his coaches had ever received and he was excited that they were now equipped with a curriculum that he knew would work. Hearing these words is a great sign and it made me reflect on the many experiences that filled these two weeks with Slum Soccer.
Arriving at our accommodation we were greeted by Deepti Karat and her family, which includes her adorable and very energetic daughter, Diva. Yes, Diva is her name and Diva is the perfect name for this little girl who filled Nick and my two weeks with many moments of laughter and joy. Unlike many other Indian children that we met, Diva is unafraid to approach strangers, share some words and ask many questions. I am so glad that I had the opportunity to meet Deepti and learn more about the dynamic and innovative work she is doing with children of sex workers at the Sunshine Foundation. She decided to completely change her career track once she saw the need to provide counseling and other services to these marginalized and underserved youth population.
Right away we met the coaches at the main center location and were greeted by a group of young and eager faces that were ready to learn new games and ways to engage with their youth teams. It is always interesting in the first five minutes as the coaches size us up to get more of an idea of what their next two weeks entails, and of course somehow Nick is able to get everyone laughing and forgetting about any doubt they might have had. In these first situations with the coaches it is always encouraging to see how football becomes the language of the group and laughter and joy become part of the regular program.
I believe that the amount of laughter and fun that the coaches experienced during the training sessions surprised them and even led one of the female coaches to asking me if it was always important to have the children laughing at all points of the session. I reminded her that we always use a mix of coaching styles and encouraged her to figure out her own style that aligns with the Slum Soccer program. Many of the coaches were also new to football, seeing that cricket is the main sport of the nation and football has not yet received much support or attention. During the sessions it became apparent that many of the coaches themselves had not learned basic football skills, so we included many games that simply taught the basic football skills like first touch, passing and field awareness. For many of the female coaches, the opportunity to play football didn’t exist when they were younger, so it is even more important to teach them the basics.
Football is growing in Nagpur and particularly with the launch of the Nagpur Premier League. We attended a game with not only all the coaches from Slum Soccer but with about 100 children from the Slum Soccer network. The large group of Slum Soccer participants made up the majority of the audience at the Gupta game and their cheers and dancing lit the night up with energy and enthusiasm.
I had the opportunity to speak with the female participants during a Guerrieras workshop that was held in Hinganghat, which was also where the tournament was held. The Guerrieras workshop is part of the Coaches Across Continents female empowerment curriculum and it is now in the pilot phase. The multimedia components in this pilot include a short video about the Brazilian women’s national team narrated by the captain and which details her experiences playing football and the obstacles she has confronted to arrive at the position she is in today, and a short power point with images capturing the women’s professional league in Brazil. These images generally create great dialogue amongst the participants and are not only intended for female participants, but rather are ideal for all participants- young, old, female, male, mothers, fathers, etc. With the female coaches of Slum Soccer, the photos and questions prompted them to relay to the group about their assiduous journeys to become involved in a male dominated sport and then to become coaches. For me it was very interesting to hear how each woman encountered different obstacles and surprisingly how the majority of them had to put more effort into convincing their mothers to allow them to play in comparison with their fathers. Of the group of 8 coaches, all are hesitant to marry, for marriage to each of them means not being able to continue being involved in sports. One woman even said that her father has promised her to find a man that will allow her to continue to coach football. The conversation was a learning experience for all, as I also contributed my own experiences in the game of football, thus giving each of them a different perspective.
Participating in the Tenth State Level Slum Soccer tournament that was entirely organized by the Slum Soccer coaches was such a wonderful way to end our first phase with Slum Soccer. The coaches organized this tournament to bring in teams from all over India, including all the way from Mumbai. The tournament was held in the center of town at a field where a street football pitch was located. Each game was guaranteed a crowd of 200 people or more, including many youth, young men, politicians and football supporters. On the second to last day of the tournament the local program director organized a collective bike ride through the town where the youth shouted out environmental slogans as well as posted them to their bikes. It was great to be part of this group as we traveled through town attracting attention from everyone and hopefully raising awareness for environmental issues affecting the community. All of the coaches from Slum Soccer participated in the bike ride riding alongside the youth players.
Apart from the time spent at the field watching the games, Nick, AB, the two new interns and I spent the rest of our time meeting people in the community and going from house to house taking photos with families. It was great meeting some of the coaches’ families and they were overjoyed that we took the opportunity to meet their family members and to see where they grew up. During the multimedia project with the female coaches, a couple of them mentioned to us that their family started to support them when they were receiving attention either from participating in international tournaments like the Homeless World Cup or when the coaches had an opportunity to work with international coaches. In a way these instances legitimized to their families and communities that what they were doing was real work.
It was difficult to say goodbye to the coaches, AB and his family as well as Deepti, Diva and the rest of their family, because both Nick and I became quite close with the Slum Soccer family over the two weeks. Both Deepti and AB are inspirational figures, having both decided to pursue work in the nonprofit sector, which is not common for the younger generations. They are determined to provide better opportunities for the youth in Nagpur and are great role models themselves, having achieved great heights academically and professionally.
After leaving India I was filled with a great sense of pride in being part of such a strong partnership and I am looking forward to hearing updates from the coaches and AB in regards to their coaching experiences and their work in their communities.