Imagine football wasn’t merely a hobby or diversion, but an escape. Not from work, or boredom, or the washing up on a weekday evening to play five-a-side. An escape from some of the greatest hardships life can inflict.
For India’s slum children, that is the reality. Often forced to work at a young age or subjected to abuse, football offers an escape from the dangers many of us are fortunate never to know. It is a lifeline, a chance to forget the hunger and cold. A chance to be young; to play, to run, to kick, to scream, to laugh, to make friends, to make memories, to learn. A chance to dream.
It is an alternative to falling into criminal activity and the life that entails. “If you are a slum kid, the chances of you getting into any kind of child labour, or abuse, or crime is very high,” says Jayadev Mahapatra.
“We try to put their energy into a positive thing like soccer. It is a physical game that takes a lot of time and effort. The objective is to wean kids away from any kind of nefarious activities.”
Mahapatra is a director at the Ardor Football Academy in eastern India. He runs a programme that aims to take kids off the street by giving them the opportunity to play football and enter local tournaments. The academy also helps with the basics, such as providing an extra meal a day for children living in impoverished conditions.
Recently they made headlines when one young player, 11-year-old Chandan Nayak, won a trip to Germany to train with Bayern Munich.
11 yrs old Chandan Nayak from Bhubaneswar (Odisha) selected to train at Bayern Munich (Germany) as an academy player pic.twitter.com/100ihz6ufO
— ANI (@ANI_news) August 22, 2016
Mahapatra first came across Chandan when he was playing football in the Sabar Sahi slum. “I found magic in the boy,” he says. “But being from the slum he was a small kid with stunted growth.”
Chandan was invited to train at the academy, where he receives free coaching, food and a kit to play in. The grassroots programme has been running for the last four years in Bhubaneswar and the last six years in Delhi.
Chandan joined three years ago and turns up for practice each week in his Lionel Messi shirt. He hopes to emulate his idol, with whom he already shares some noticeable characteristics.
“He’s a fearless kid given his background,” Mahapatra tells The Set Pieces. “He’s not scared of boys who are bigger or stronger than him. And he’s a very fast learner.”
Chandan’s bravery played an important role when he entered the competition to train with Bayern Munich, arranged by club sponsor Allianz Life Insurance.
The selection programme was designed for teenagers between 14 and 16, but Chandan wanted to show what he could do. “Let him go through it,” his coach told the selectors. “If he doesn’t get selected, fine. But let him take the test.” The judges were soon won over by his ability. “Mesmerised,” says Mahapatra.
The final stage of the trial was held in Pune, a two-day drive across the country. As one of 160 young hopefuls from all over India, “all bigger guys aged 14 to 16”, Chandan impressed once again.
“He made the final five to go to Bayern Munich. We knew he was a special kid and we were sure he’d surprise the selectors. He did very well because he’s fearless, he just played his game.”
This 11-year-old who lives in a slum might just be India's future soccer star: https://t.co/3l8gTPzFiA
— AJ+ (@ajplus) August 27, 2016
Like many slum children, Chandan is experiencing a tough upbringing. The youngest of four siblings, his father deserted the family when he was just two years old. His mother works as a maid while Chandan attends school and plays football.
“Chandan comes from such an underprivileged background. He’s a child who has suffered a lot because of the separation in the family, and the difficulties of food and shelter.
“He stays in a one room shanty. It’s really difficult for them to eke out a living with the kind of money they have. It’s a tough ask for his mother to get them enough food. He gets one meal a day and another which is supported by us.
“He has stunted growth but he’s really crazy about soccer. He loves this game and under all circumstances he has never stopped playing.”
The reality of the everyday challenges Chandan faces were brought home when he requested a visa to travel to Germany. With no birth certificate – let alone a passport, which he would never expect to need – his application was instantly rejected.
It looked as though his dream had been cruelly denied before a late intervention by the local government.
“Generally kids brought up in the slums don’t have ID. They’re not bothered about that sort of thing.
“The passport was arranged by the state government. They called up the embassy and provided all the documents we had and finally we got the visa. It went through a lot of hiccups but thanks to a lot of help from everyone he was able to go.”
Chandan’s mother, Duhita Nayak, was elated. “I never thought in my life that any of my children will go overseas,” she told The New Indian Express. “For me, providing livelihood for them is in itself very difficult. I am extremely happy that Chandan was selected.”
He was soon on his way to Munich for the experience of a lifetime. Training at some of the best facilities in the world, the boy from Bhubaneswar’s Ardor Football Academy spent a week being coached by the game’s leading professionals.
“He thoroughly enjoyed the experience. He has seen such a beautiful ground and met such beautiful people. He was really happy with the kind of coaching he got,” says Mahapatra.
“He always wanted to be part of a programme like this because in India kids don’t get to experience those kind of facilities.”
Chandan was also introduced to some of Bayern’s star players, but there was one person in particular he hoped to bump into.
“He met Mr. Lahm, Philipp Lahm, and Arjen Robben. He was very excited by all that and he also got a signed shirt from the club.
“He’s a big fan of Messi, so he kept trying to get in touch with any of the Barcelona people there. He’s a kid so he didn’t know that Barcelona is in Spain.”
Having now returned to India with a suitcase filled with memories and his signed Bayern Munich shirt, Chandan’s dream is to join a senior club where he can continue his development. Mahapatra is hopeful of finding the right opportunity.
“Now Chandan has achieved his dream going to Bayern Munich a lot of clubs have started approaching him. He has created a lot of hope for other kids.
“We’re in touch with a couple of clubs that play in the Indian Soccer League, including FC Pune. We’re talking to them to take Chandan into their residential programme.
“If he goes through those programmes for a couple of years he might get the opportunity to play abroad. Let’s see. It’s just the beginning. Next year he will definitely join a senior club.”
For Mahapatra and the Ardor Football Academy, Chandan’s story is a tool to inspire other slum children to channel their energy into football. It may not necessarily prove to be a route out of poverty, but it can help to build a safer, happier life.
“Chandan is a flagbearer for the programme that we run. He is one of the most disciplined and dedicated players I’ve trained. It was a huge achievement to go to Bayern Munich and creates a lot of hope in the slums. The kids can come here, play soccer and achieve the unthinkable.
“When he got selected, I thought this is just the beginning. We’d love to see more foreign clubs come down to do scouting. Whatever is possible we try to give it to the kids. If they are able to play soccer, slowly and steadily it can make a huge difference.”