“I used to wash cars for such little money just so I had enough money to buy my football boots. My family was so poor that football for me was about survival. I told my mother from a young age. Don’t worry, I will become a football player and get us out of this situation. If I had failed, I would be working 15 hour days on construction sites and still not be earning enough to live.”
“Football saved me.”
Alexis Sanchez, Forward, Chile and Arsenal FC
A couple of months back, I came across this story of 4 children from impoverished backgrounds who performed well at the School Football Championship, featuring 2250 kids from 200 schools across the nation. They were given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to London and train with the Premier League Club, Crystal Palace. As someone who would have gladly given an arm and leg to do just that as a kid growing up, I immediately sat up and took notice.
As I read more about these kids, who are part of Just For Kicks, a school intervention program which teaches children through a life skills based football curriculum, the more it became apparent that these were inspiring stories of young children who had battled incredible odds and turned their lives around, with football being the catalyst. They have not allowed impoverishment to come in the way of their ambition, and this opportunity was just reward for staying true to their dreams.
Football. The beautiful game. The harbinger of hope for those who aspire to a better life. A pick-me-up in times of despair. The route to personal salvation.
I love football. It has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. My regret is that I didn’t play as much of it as other sports. It is the first sport that I was exposed to, like a lot of kids are. After all, all you need is a ball or sock bundle or plastic bottle to lump around.
I’ve made my way since through a lot of sports, ranging from being abysmal to remotely decent, until I started playing football 6 years ago on moving to Bangalore. And have since wondered what I’ve done with my life.
It’s kind of like meeting a nice girl while you were a kid, have her drift out of your life, and then meet her again years later and realize that she was the one for you after all.
Our band of men, boys and occasional woman at Bangalore live for Thursday Night Football. It is what we look forward to most, even more than weekends. It has been a lot of things to different people.
A safe place for the reticent talker to come alive. A release from a hard work week. A place to leave life’s troubles behind. A place to unleash creativity the only way one knows how. And so on.
As for me, whenever I take my first steps into that green patch of turf every week and look up at the floodlights, I know that I am happy. Truly happy. Football saves me.
But I’ve also had other saviors. A comfortable upbringing. Family and friends who truly love me. An education which ensures that I will never starve.
Whenever someone asks me about the one thing I would do differently if I could go back in time, I always say that I wish I had taken sport up professionally. But that would have been a hard sell to my family. I still wish I had though because I could have had some form of a safety net.
This brings me back to these 4 kids. A couple of them have lost parents at a young age, but they have all had the love of family and good people around them. And the best education they could hope for. But they still have difficult lives. They’re poor. They take on responsibilities children that age have no business taking on. At these tournaments, they mix it up with richer kids with the latest equipment, who train at better facilities, and who could probably have a shot at a professional sports career and have a good college education to fall back on. That’s not a luxury these children have.
We all love an underdog. Part of the reason is that we have all been underdogs at various points in our lives and can relate to the struggle. But an underdog who fights for his or her dream through every single obstacle life can throw at them, seemingly against impossible odds, is one worth rooting for. And even without knowing these kids, the fact that they are doing it through football makes it personal.
Avantika, Ashish, Shatrughan and Samrat. They need football to save them. What beautiful stories these would be.
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