Football Changing Young Indian Lives

by Trilok Kapur on  March 29, 2010 at 3:57 PM Lifestyle News
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The Bombay Port Trust sports ground with its rutted, dusty pitch, is a world away from the English Premier League and its plush, all-seated stadiums, manicured turf and big-money stars.
 Football Changing Young Indian Lives
Football Changing Young Indian Lives

But for hundreds of young boys and girls from Mumbai's slums and streets, playing football on the hard ground in the shadow of crumbling factories and warehouses is like an appearance at Old Trafford, Anfield or Stamford Bridge.

An excited crowd shelters from the sweltering sun under a makeshift stand, cheering on their friends, brothers, sisters, sons or daughters.

For the length of an eight-a-side game, nothing else matters.

"These children are forced to become adults much sooner than anyone else," said Sohan Shah, from the British charity Magic Bus, which organizes the tournament.

"They're working or taking care of siblings. This is about giving them a childhood. It's as simple as that," he told AFP.

Magic Bus has been working with thousands of children for more than a decade, using sport -- especially the world game of football -- to build confidence, discipline and self-worth in the city's most deprived youngsters.

It currently works with nearly 50 groups of about 40 children in places like the Bombay Port Trust area, where residents live in cramped, filthy conditions with little access to even the most basic of facilities.

Football is part of the children's weekly, two-hour social and personal development classes and are played throughout the year, culminating in the much-anticipated finals in early March.

With its simple philosophy of sport as the best school for life, the organization has captured the imagination of politicians, big business and sports stars around the world.

The Premier League -- watched in 211 countries around the world and by more than 77 million fans outside Britain every week -- is a main strategic partner and one of a number of international corporate sponsors.

Some of the youngsters will even go to this year's World Cup finals in South Africa, as part of the Football for Hope festival involving children from more than 30 programs that also use "the beautiful game" for social change.

"Kids have a right to play," said Shah, as a gust of wind blows up white dust from the touchline. "It's not human not to be given that right. Once they play they will grow and get empowered.

"We've found that sport helps increase school attendance and reduce substance abuse and crime. It also helps community cohesion."

He added: "The Premier League supporting something here is brilliant."

Getting girls into sport -- and encouraging boys to play with and respect them -- has been a major achievement, said Shah.

"The Bombay Port Trust area is mainly a Muslim community. Even for these girls to be here and play in shorts is a big change. It makes them and even their mothers feel empowered," he added.

"They feel they can be anything they want to be."

Ten years ago, Parvati Pujari was the same age as the players on the pitch.

Now the 19-year-old is a charity volunteer, coaching a team of pigtailed girls drawn from a city orphanage and slum area.

"Both my parents were construction workers and I never got to play games," she said.

"I have six sisters and I had to look after the younger ones, so games were never considered important. It was only important to study and do housework.

"But when we joined Magic Bus I learned a lot of new games and I managed to use these games in my daily life. I started feeling that they are not just games. I can really use them even when I go home."

Parvati is one of the charity's success stories. For the last year, she has been playing fly-half for the fledgling Indian women,s rugby union team and is determined to be a role model for younger girls.

With so many children now involved, young talent has inevitably emerged.

One girl is now playing for the state under-15 team while the boys' team is climbing the local leagues, said Shah.

Magic Bus is part of an international initiative to develop grassroots sport in India with help from the United Nations children's fund UNICEF, UK Sport and the Indian government.

Shah is convinced that one day a professional player will emerge from Mumbai's slums.

"It will happen because if you give so many people a chance to play there's going to be stars that will emerge," he said.

Source: AFP

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