From Russia With Love

Fill your life with experiences, not things. Have stories to tell, not stuff to show.

Sujal Kahar is a 7th-grader from Sai Baba Path Educo School in Mumbai. Having been part of the JFK Program for 2 years, football has empowered him and given him a platform to express himself. Sujal used to have a quick temper and was prone to losing control when angry. That same Sujal has learned that letting his emotions get the better of him can cost not only him but his team. The shy boy from the classroom now stands up to the playground bullies and actively takes care of his teammates and the class goldfish.For these reasons and considerable technical skill, Sujal was selected for the Football for Friendship (F4F) program in St. Petersburg, Russia. F4F is an international children’s social program that aims to promote youth sports and foster tolerance and respect toward other cultures and ethnicities. In its 5th year, F4F, backed by FIFA and Gazprom, has grown from 8 to 64 countries, and this year India was invited for the first time.

Mumbai to Delhi, Delhi to Dubai, and Dubai to St. Petersburg. 23 hours later, we arrived at the Pulkovo International Airport. At 12 degrees and rainy, the F4F team that welcomed us told us it was summer! Sujal looked around nervously, not sure where he had landed up. The warm, cramped streets of Mumbai were left far behind.

At the first ambassador meeting, Sujal was introduced to his team, consisting of 12-year-olds from Armenia, Venezuela, Iceland, Pakistan, Slovenia, South Africa and South Korea. He was nervous, not sure how to behave, overwhelmed by everything that was coming his way. Some of these kids had blond hair, most of them had iPhones, but he tried his best to put himself out there. His efforts wouldn’t go in vain – they all had something in common.

Over the next 3 days, Sujal and his team were part of the International Friendship Camp. The bus would leave after breakfast, to the Nova Arena, where the 8 teams of Friendship would immerse themselves in football, values, team building, and friendship.

Sujal, in the Yellow team, stepped out on the first day in extreme rain and wind, on another cold morning and put on his goalkeeper gloves. He had been waiting for this moment. Through the myriad of emotions and questions in his head, Sujal came into his own on the football pitch. He was struggling to move freely in the blistering cold, but he went through the drills, practised saving shots, and started building the bonds that only sport can bring. Within 2 hours of football, Sujal had settled in.

After lunch, his team learnt about core values of the F4F Program – friendship, equality, fairness, health, peace, devotion, victory, traditions, and honour. Every day their team leaders Diana and Elena would focus on 3 values taught and understood through indoor games, team activities, discussions, and a lot of laughter!

Here Sujal got to interact and speak to his teammates and all the other children. Within the first hour, he had started joking with them, playing Score Hero, and even giving Diana and Elena a hard time. He saw something that was very apparent to everyone around – children are all the same, from all countries, from all backgrounds, from all cultures. They filled the bus ride back with laughter, chants, and high-fives.

As the 3rd day ended, Sujal was feeling part of a bigger identity – the Yellow team. They had invented names for each other, they were constantly pranking each other and laughing uncontrollably. They shared stories of their countries, of their football, and of their favourite players. On the field, they were forming a solid understanding of each other and Sujal was pushing himself with every dive, every block, and every goal. He was part of a team, and they were feeling united. The boys he had met on the first day from all those different countries were now Viktor! Jaka! Yousuf! Jamein! Edgar!The Friendship Camp concluded and the kids were given a day off, that included a tour of the historic city of St. Petersburg. The buses travelled all across the city, escorted by the police, with a tour guide that gave us insight into St. Petersburg. Peter and Paul’s fortress, used to imprison and execute people in a time of the revolution. Church of the Spilled Blood, probably the most iconic cathedral in Russia. Sujal saw a new world, almost picked from imagination. Pictures, buying souvenirs, eating pizza, and posing with Porsches filled the day in between all the monuments and scenic views.

Saturday marked the big day they had been practising for. The F4F Championship! After a grand, entertaining Opening Ceremony, Sujal’s Yellow Team played their Quarterfinal against the Cyan team and came out 2-0 winners after a captain’s performance by Viktor from Iceland. Sujal made a crucial save at 1-0, one-on-one against an attacker, and he wheeled around in celebration after the final whistle. All those days of practice and anticipation were worth it. He was beaming from ear to ear.

The Semi Final was against the Orange Team, in a crazy match that began with 3 quick goals to Orange, eventually becoming 3-2 and finally 4-3 to Orange. Football teaches you to take both defeat and victory in your stride, and they eventually shook off their understandable disappointment. The Orange team went on to win the Championship in the Final, ending the day in a downpour of confetti and music. It was time for all of them to celebrate, with a big day planned for Sunday.The final day began with the International Children’s Forum. Football superstars like Julio Baptista, Michel Salgado were present, along with FIFA Secretaries, media houses from across the globe, and an audience of 1200 people. Sujal had been invited to speak at the event. After initially declining to speak the previous day, Sujal asked if he could try once and then decide. He wrote a small speech about his love for football, and after 2 rehearsals he felt like he was ready. From the moment they invited him on stage, till the moment he walked off, Sujal displayed charisma and self-assurance. He walked confidently in his slightly large jersey, spoke clearly, looked up, and gracefully accepted his award. It was a moment of sheer pride for everyone associated with Sujal. It was a fitting testament to the beautiful game, and a representation of the impact it had on him.

They ended the day with a visit to the New Zenit Stadium for the Confederations Cup Final, Germany vs Chile. Here they got to see 2 of the best teams in the world battle it out live in front of them. Players they had watched on TV were now up close and personal. Sujal played close attention to both goalkeepers and thought Ter Stegen from Germany was the better one. 56,000 people made for an electric atmosphere, many Mexican waves, and a lot of cheering. It was a dream come true, even for the adults.Exhausted, Sujal woke up late the next day, packed his bags, and said goodbye as everyone left for the airport and their homes. He made a list of everyone’s numbers and Facebook names, and they promised to share videos and games with each other. The awkward handshakes from the first day were now hugs and wide smiles. Football had built friendships they would tell their grandkids about. With a whole bag of chocolates, gifts, and memorabilia, Sujal said bye to St. Petersburg waiting for his mother’s daal and rice at home, Russian food too bland for him.

How this experience would shape his personality and self-belief is something that we will see over time. For now, Sujal has got the chance to be part of something larger than life. He goes back to regular life with countless memories, stories, and new friends. Football has taken him to a city he didn’t know existed. It has taught him that peace and humanity are not just words in a book. He’s seen what’s possible on the other side of inequality. He’s played and become friends with a boy from Pakistan, despite everything that his TV in Mumbai says. Football is no more just a game he plays.

A story about devotion by Sujal Kahar

What is Devotion? A young football player Sujal Kahar from India knows what #DEVOTION means. Sujal took part in #F4F 2017 programme and visited St. Petersburg along with children from other 63 countries. This is his story. #FOOTBALL4FRIENDSHIP #FIFA #GAZPROM

Posted by Football For Friendship on Wednesday, 12 July 2017


Rishi Nandwani Written by:

Rishi - City Lead, Pune, Just For Kicks Rishi, a boy of confused origins, began his career as a teacher in a Pune- based school. Rishi’s students who were already bitten by the Just For Kicks' bug got him into supporting their team in Pune, ultimately stepping up to take over the mantle of the city completely. He has supported Arsenal since Ljungberg scored that magical goal against Chelsea in the 2001 FA Cup Final, completing a trio of Gooners in the team. When he isn’t breathing football, Rishi can be found browsing for new electronic music or arranging things in the house for the umpteenth time.

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