How football is helping youth lead better lives.
Every once in a few years, football witnesses the story of a team or a player that makes one believe in the sheer power of the game to uplift and inspire. And indeed, football is full of stories where love for the game saves players from rough childhoods, absent parents, and lives of crime. From the divisive FC Barcelona star Luis Suarez to Manchester United powerhouse Antonio Valencia, a large number of professional football players have beaten massive odds to be at the top of the game and serve as inspirations for millions across the world to search for a better future.
And yet, football also seems to have the power to divide. Modern football has been blotted by frequent hooliganism and supporter firms that have been accused of being fascist and criminal. These firms often tend to lead supporters to violent crimes and convictions that often lead to them being barred from attending games. After all, football is a tribal expression of physical prowess and mental cunning and football support is often rife with masculinity and rivalry that borders on hatred.
However, this paradox does not concern the 3000-odd children who gather every evening across football fields in India ready for their evening game of football, facilitated by the OSCAR Foundation, a Mumbai-based NGO that uses the sport as a tool for educating and teaching life skills. The children are from challenging backgrounds. A number of them live in slums, where an alarming lack of role models and influences exists. This is compounded by the lack of activities that productively engage the youth and hence they often at an unfortunate risk of associating with drug abusers and criminals. It is difficult to keep most of them at school, even when the schools exist.
However, each and every one of the children under OSCAR’s programme attends school regularly. They even have favourite subjects. 11 year old Rahul loves math and the midfield, 17 year old Shradda loves the midfield and geography. The model is very simple. If the children attend school, they get to play football. They get to play at some of the best grounds in the city, they get coached by both Indian and foreign coaches, and they get to participate frequently in tournaments. After that, it is their game to win – some of the children have played in Europe, and many of them have met famous footballing royalty as well as the British royalty when the latter visited Mumbai in 2016.
Ashok Rathod, the NGO’s founder firmly believes that football has the power to protect and to heal. And he has good cause to. Ashok’s background is not very different from some of these children’s, and he has seen first hand how competitive sport can serve as an outlet for energy as well as teach life lessons that cannot be learned in a classroom.
The idea of using sport for improving the life conditions of key populations seems almost intuitive. Programs are being carried out all over the world. Here in India, NGOs such as OSCAR Foundation and Yuwa run soccer schools, the latter primarily for girls. Football clubs do their part as well by using their resources and expertise, from FC Goa to Arsenal FC.
However, research does not unanimously agree on the effectiveness of the method and often doubts the correlation between crime prevention and sport. Such programmes have seen considerable opposition sometimes, most notoriously in Chicago in the 1990s where a program called Midnight Basketball was piloted. Archives of contemporary news sources report a cautious optimism. Lt. Nelson Evans, an erstwhile police officer of 34 years is quoted in the New York Times as saying, “Any time you get 1,500 people on a warm summer night enjoying basketball, that’s good because what might these people be doing otherwise,” he said. “It’s a great program. It builds friendship between the developments and you have different gang factions playing on the same team, learning to get along.” And yet, the program which formed a fraction of the Anti Crime Bill budget went on to become a major point of contention, with detractors claiming it would lead to the proliferations of gang violence.
The program is retrospectively described as a success. However, it can still be difficult to find majority approval and the hurdles are many. Ashok tells me about their upcoming program with the juvenile correctional system that is taking longer than usual to commence. He seems undeterred, though. He wants to raise the enrolment ratio of female footballers to fifty percent, up from the impressive current figure of forty. Football has been criticized in its capacity as an agent of change for being an aggressive game often perceived to be “manly”, as sport often is. But there are success stories that seek to change the status quo.
These success stories are often driven by belief. While they are far from anecdotal, the lack of scientific consensus does not prevent believers from preaching of the beautiful game as an agent of change, as is evident by a recent Harry Kane statement calling for football funding to tackle youth crime.
But perhaps the greatest believers are the children themselves, and some truly take football to be a path of salvation. And on a sunny afternoon pitch at the Cooperage where boys and girls, who have hurriedly dumped their school uniform for the kits and the studs, kick a football about, it is easy to see why. Competitive sport satisfies a basic human need of peerage and approval, of performance and appreciation. After all, the same mental reward mechanism exists for all of us – what changes is where we get our rushes from. Crime often proliferates because gangs give a sense of tribal belonging – something that football substitutes. While the same gangs can sometimes manifest themselves as supporter firms, a healthy culture of competition as well as respect for sportsmanship is what many after-school football programs often aim at inculcating.
And the results are there for the world to see, from the ageless Swedish hero Zlatan Ibrahimovic to the thousands of Mumbai slum youth that stand a small chance at going to England to play in a tournament later this year. Only a handful will make it – but so many have found dreams and the means to chase them. And perhaps that is the greatest lesson football also teaches, as a game rooted in comebacks and counterattacks – it is possible to outplay one’s very circumstances in life – with a little help from teammates and coaches, and of course, the spectator.