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Farm labourer's son on his way to World Cup in Brazil

Homkant Surandase, a runaway from the farmer suicide belt of Yavatmal, found his life’s calling in football, thanks to NGO Slum Soccer; now, the global football meet at Rio de Janeiro beckons

Speak to Homkant Surandase and you’ll find him brimming with confidence, full of ideas and having a soldier-like focus. It’s difficult to believe that the 25-year-old was once without hope in life, and had even contemplated suicide.

Surandase with CEO of Slum Soccer, Abhijeet Barse
HAVING A  BALL: Surandase with CEO of Slum Soccer, Abhijeet Barse

Surandase is the head coach at Slum Soccer, a Nagpur-based NGO that works with children of the slums, commercial sex workers, homeless, orphans, and improves their lives through football. He himself nurtured his football skill with them. Hard work, perseverance and guidance earned him a job at Slum Soccer, where he now trains other coaches who help children play football.

Slum Soccer
Slum Soccer teaches underprivileged children life lessons through football

“We use football as a tool for social development. We teach children the importance of a healthy lifestyle, education and making decisions,” says Abhijeet Barse, the CEO of Slum Soccer, whose father Vijay Barse first started organising tournaments for slum children in 1998 after he noticed them playing in the rains.

Slum Soccer was established in 2002. Abhijeet left his US post-doctorate fellowship to take charge of his father’s baby around 2006. “Football is a simple sport – all you need is a ball and some open space. In fact, we used to play with broken plastic buckets initially,” recalls Abhijeet.

When children play the sport, they learn teamwork, discipline, and focus. It inculcates in them a spirit of leadership and friendship, while developing their social skill sets. Through its carefully developed curriculum, the NGO spreads awareness about key issues such as education, gender equality, HIV/AIDS, environment and health. Girls are especially encouraged to play; many have broken social barriers and discovered themselves through the game.

Slum Soccer reaches out to over 8,000 children in various districts of Vidarbha region of Maharashtra and adjoining Madhya Pradesh. Practice sessions are held almost every day – on condition that children enrol and attend school. Coaches keep a regular check on their wards’ attendance records. The NGO has successfully rehabilitated social misfits, many of whom were well on their way to becoming anti-social elements, and has transformed them into mature, confident individuals.

It was Abhijeet who met Surandase back in 2007, when the latter had run away from his village Ner Parsopant in Yavatmal, one of the areas where Vidarbha farmers were committing suicide. Surandase was the son of a marginal farm labourer. “It was a very difficult time. Farmers around me were committing suicide as they couldn’t repay loans,” Surandase told mid-day. Having no desire to learn in a government school that had no teacher anyway, he and his friends took to loitering. Someone in the village had acquired a deflated football; the boys sewed it up and started playing every day. Soon, a slum football tournament came to a nearby town. “I thought – why not? We were doing nothing anyway,” says Surandase, who was then 17 years old.

Organised by Slum Soccer, the tournament resulted in Surandase getting selected, and representing, Maharashtra at national-level slum football. However, the glory was short-lived. The situation in his village had worsened, with suicides on the rise and his parents telling him to quit football. The frustrated boy ran away to Nagpur, where he met Abhijeet.

Leading the pack, Slum Soccer completely changed Surandase’s life. In 2008, the organisation became a member of the streetfootballworld network, FIFA’s strategic alliance partner and CSR arm. The same year, Surandase was part of the squad for the Homeless World Cup in Melbourne, an international tournament involving more than 60 countries. The exposure to global cultures and ideas had opened his mind and made him determined to change the lives of other children like him, through football.

Andy Hook, the director of Homeless World Cup, came down to India for a training programme to develop coaches for Slum Soccer. Surandase immersed himself into the sessions and learnt how to become a coach. “Abhijeet Sir groomed me – he brought me videos, material to learn new skills,” adds the role model for all children playing with Slum Soccer.

Surandase is regularly deputed to different centres of the NGO to encourage people to play football. “The game helps children love who they are and gives them confidence and hope.”

He himself is realising his own dream – of going to the Mecca of football, Brazil. Surandase is one of 32 youths chosen for a global leadership forum to be held at Rio de Janeiro during the FIFA World Cup 2014 this June. At the event, which is organised by FIFA affiliate streetfootballworld, participants will share ideas and discuss how football can bring about social change in their countries.

The Lionel Messi fan also hopes to catch a game or two – and if Lady Luck allows, meet his hero. “I just love his skills and the way he slices through the world’s best defences,” he says admiringly. He eventually wants to become a physical education instructor in a college, but is currently busy preparing his wards for the Homeless World Cup in October.

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