Sunday, August 24, 2014

Manav Sadhna Blue Stars Update

There have been a few landmark moments for the MS Football team over the last few months and it is high time I write about them. First, the team has officially been named the Manav Sadhna Blue Stars. The children decided on the name themselves after nearly six months of passive deliberation. The 'Blue' is the children paying homage to my high school team, the "Blue Devils".

In July, The Blue Stars participated in the annual Sintex Cup, hosted by Kahaani, one of Ahmedabad's premier and most active football clubs and one of our program's best supporters. Coming into the tournament, we faced a tall task because we were forced to play in the U18 division. The divsion below was U14, and since our A team has players ranging from 13-17, we got caught in the middle. Playing against older boys would not be easy, but in three matches we put up a solid effort. In the first match, the children never backed down throughout a 5-0 defeat to a team from Rajkot, one of the best teams in the tournament. Our biggest challenge was keeping organized defensively and maintaining enough possession to attack. In the second game we had our breakthrough, scoring our first goal ever in tournament play. It was off of a quick pass by Daval which Nilesh pushed in from five feet. The kids reacted like they won the World Cup. They lost the match 6-1, but there was no way to tell by the demeanor of the teams which team won after the game. I personally felt a sense of relief that we had finally broken through with a goal in a real match. In the final match of the tournament we were shut out again, and the team didn't play up to their potential against a weaker opponent. They played like they had already gotten what they came for in the tournament. It was gratifying to put one big step behind us (scoring) to clearly face the next huge one (winning). The kids got enough of a taste that they remain fiercely hungry, and completely unfazed by losing.

Today, we had another truly memorable day, holding our Sunday morning practice in Jamalpur, a medium sized slum in the old city. There are a group of about five players on our team from Jamalpur that form the backbone of the program. Ravi, Mayur, Daval, Hitesh, and Dasarath are our historically most committed players. They travel the furthest for Sunday practice, and are usually the first to arrive. They are also amongst our best players. They hold their own daily soccer practice in Jamalpur with local kids, whom they have introduced to the game completely on their own. This day was a long time coming, as they have been insisting that I visit Jamalpur and see where they come from and how they play.
They play in a dirt patch on the riverfront. It is littered with large colorful piles of garbage. Walking up the clearing I was thrown off because the colors almost made it look beautiful.

The Jamalpur kids had been prepping the ground for the past week, pulling wild grass and cleaning up garbage. They had even booked a garbage removal service to come with a machine and scoop up the heaping pile they had gathered up. That machine didn't show up, so at 5am all the local kids woke up and moved the pile to one side with their hands to have a good place to play later that morning. It took my breath away. They also built an incredible homemade goal, inspired by a photo essay I showed them during World Cup on goalposts from around the world. I felt awe and admiration for the passion and dedication these kids show for the game.

We practiced for a couple hours with over 40 players, using the fantastic collapsible goals brought over by Eashan from the UK, and then went to visit some of the players' homes. This was something I was really looking forward to. Connecting with how these kids live, breath, where they come from, it all felt long overdue since they have have been an important part of my life over the last couple years. I wanted to meet their parents to understand the kids better and also engage the parents to feel part of the program, hear out their concerns and dreams, and generally develop a deeper connection with the kids and community. I truly feel that these kids are talented in their own ways and have such great potential, and I was delighted to find that each of their parents saw the same. They want to grow up to be accountants, artists, or work with computers. Mayur's mother, a 10th-grade pass-out who has worked 17 years for a local NGO, traveling all over India and addressing crowds of thousands, spoke about how she sees soccer matches on TV and how she envisions her son there. How she is grateful that her son has an opportunity to develop to his full potential. She sees Narendra Modi, who came from a modest background to be India's PM, as an example of how any child, including her own, can reach grand heights. In their very modest 200 sq. foot one-room home, I was humbled and grateful to hear Daval's father talk about how he sees his future in his only son. He works late nights till 12 or 1am to support him and his two daughters. He carefully monitors Daval's progress in school and only asks us to look after him well. All of these families are working class; Mayur's father supervises a clothing factory, Dasrath's mother is a vegetable seller, Daval's Dad is a clothing decorator. All of them wanted basically the same thing: continue to play football, but also to give the same effort and attention to their schoolwork. I told Mayur's mom that in my personal experience growing up with sports, my achievement in school and soccer were correlated; both reinforced and supported achievement in the other, such that I probably wouldn't have been as successful in either had I not had both. This is the message we will impart, perhaps more frequently and explicitly, to our players.

Working with these children over the last few years has caused me to question having my own children. If I can be around children like these, give love and support in the ways I feel most connected to, and actually feel that I'm influencing them positively in even a small way, that is enough. If I have my own children, I would have to prioritize them first. And there are so many millions of children already in the world that need love and support.

We ended with a meal arranged at Manav Sadhna's Jamalpur center (Manav Gulzar), the first place in India I've ever seen with a temple and masjid side by side. As we left, I felt exhausted but filled up with real joy and gratitude for having these kids and this project in my life.

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