In a soccer drill, players are given different roles. These change with the blow of a shrill whistle from the coach and the movement on the field changes accordingly. Attackers turn defenders and defenders take control of the ball. Lalit Ram Sahni, 22, who lives in the labour camp at Delhi’s Khan Market area practised these drills for years before he went on to become a member of the Motilal Nehru College soccer team that won an inter-university tournament recently.
When not practising with his team, Sahni can be seen on the lawns outside Humayun’s Tomb. On a Sunday morning, he is surrounded by children from the Nizamuddin basti. Aged between eight and 17, they are learning football, which would help them connect with education and better lives. Boys Suhail, Salman and girls Saiba and Sada, jostle for space to be in the front and listen attentively as Sahni instructs them on field formation in a mix of broken English and fluent Hindi.
His life has been much like a soccer drill. It has been unpredictable and full of different roles. A soccer coach and a role model to slum kids—all at the same time.
Sahni lost his father when he was very young. His mother found it difficult to make ends meet. At every training camp with the Nizamuddin children, Sahni is reminded of his own childhood when he got attracted to soccer during an evening visit to the Junior Modern School, where he saw children from Khan Market’s labour camp playing. He says, “I was in Class VI at the Pandara Road Government School when someone told me about children like us who play soccer to lead better lives. Initially, I was not interested in playing. I was told the children are given refreshment at the soccer camp. Our family was going through difficult days. My mother, a widow, had no job. It was tough to eke out an existence. I would be greedy for refreshments. What could be better than juice, bananas and chips at the end of a FIFA style knockout game?”
Sahni’s appetite grew—from potato chips to goals, checks and dribbles. He adds, “Gradually I developed an interest in the sport and became regular at NGO Kutumb’s ‘Goal of Life’ programme where several other kids from socially weak families were trained in soccer to develop a sense of team and leadership. The day we lost our first match against children from another NGO by 2-1, we sobbed. Kapil bhaiya from Kutumb taught us the value of defeat and the joy of winning. I practised more and never looked back. Kutumb organised the ‘Goal of Life’ tournament. Ironically, it had no team of its own. My friend Hero and I were part of the first team and we played several seasons. I also played three seasons with the India Youth Soccer Association and was even named the best player.”
Beyond soccer practice, Sahni’s trainee, eight-year-old Saiba, would pass off for a quiet girl who liked nothing better than playing with dolls. But on the grounds, she is a feared opponent with an immense control over the ball. The boy-against-girl attacking and defending ends in peace. Adds the coach, “I want to train more girls alongside the boys. Sadly, a lot of them drop out after they turn 11 or 12 because the parents don’t allow them to go outside their homes. It’s a challenge to make them continue. But owing to the fact that we connect education to soccer and soccer to life, parents do get convinced eventually.”
Sahni is a role model for the children he trains. He says, “Soccer keeps them away from drugs and crime. Prior to the Commonwealth Games, we had a number of children turning up for the sessions in Saket. A few of them were on drugs. After a game, they would ask for money instead of bananas and milk. I was pretty firm with them. I told them they could continue playing, but not ask for money. In barely six months, they left begging and stopped doing drugs. They said they love having milk and banana and it makes them feel healthier and much better. Today they can compete with kids from public schools.”
Sahni’s hero is none other than Bhaichug Bhutia, the ace Indian striker. “I got the opportunity to learn from Bhaichung at a camp held at IIT Delhi. He is a very sharp coach. He is always on the field, composes the training sessions beautifully and makes children learn about life through soccer and drills. I have picked up a lot from him on aspects like field positioning, sets and rotation. For Bhaichung, every player he trains is important,” Sahni says.
For Sahni, every player at Goal of Life is important. Like every role in a soccer drill is.