CHENNAI: On his maiden visit to Chennai, 20-year-old R Browlin is not really enthused about visiting a new place, but focused on the passion of his life: football. Son of a fisherman in Thoothukudi, Browlin is the captain of the U-20 team from Tirunelveli, which is one of the 30 teams battling it out at the ongoing Slum Soccer’s grand finale (May 7 to May 11) on the Besant Nagar Beach.
Slum soccer, an NGO which spreads awareness about social issues among the underprivileged and disadvantaged kids living in slums across India, through the sport, is conducting the event. The matches are being held in a small enclosure having the official surface used by international futsal (a modified form of soccer played with five players per side on a smaller pitch), on the beach, near the police outpost. Apart from U-20, U-17 and U-14 teams are also in the fray. Teams from Udumalpet, Tirunelveli, Theni as well as Nagpur and West Bengal are competing with local Chennai teams, the strongest of which is the one from Santhome.
Curious morning walkers as well as policemen patrolling the beach were drawn into the intensity of the game, on Friday. With just four or five players on either side, the game moves really fast, with players and coaches from other teams egging them on from outside the enclosure, in chaste ‘Chennai Tamil’.
Among slum children, the sport is popular because neither does it require as much space as cricket, nor any infrastructure facilities. “I’ve seen them playing even with buckets and mugs, everything is a ball for them,” says M Akshay, who heads the operations at Slum Soccer.
Talking about the difference in training slum children and those from privileged backgrounds, S Xavier, coach of the Tirunelveli team, says, “Slum children are stronger and have natural skills but lack the discipline, which is necessary for excelling in sport. That’s what we and slum soccer try to achieve.”
“No kid from the slum would listen to us, if we advise them about AIDS awareness or respecting women. But once we get in touch with them through football, they see us as mentors and heed our words,” says Akshay.
Though the games are highly competitive, the focus, as Akshay and Xavier point out, is not on winning, but putting the best foot forward. “There is no prize money in the tournament. We are just looking to build character and camaraderie among slum kids. Fairplay and respect for the match officials and opponents are our key pointers,” Akshay says.
Even the league matches are organised in such a way that all teams, despite winning or losing, get to play an equal number of matches.
Apart from the values, Browlin’s goals are clear. “I first want to play professional league, then district and then State,” he says, with firm determination.