“On the football field, there is no rich or poor, no Hindu or Muslim, no girl or boy," says Sylvester Peter, 43, who runs My Angels Academy in west Delhi’s Vikaspuri neighbourhood. He started the academy in 1987, at age 13.

Over the ensuing three decades, Peter has largely spent his own money to reform the lives of more than 140 children from slums nearby—through football.

Practical and moral lessons taught through this low-cost game that appeals to children, combined with the academy’s theoretical schooling, make for a holistic learning experience. “Most of these kids were beggars, ragpickers, thieves or drug addicts when they joined," says Peter, “but today, several of them are working professionals." They have grown to be bankers, designers, trainers, coaches, dancers and footballers.

Among its alumni is Sandeep Kumar, 28, who grew up in the slums of Vikaspuri and has been associated with the academy since he was six years old. “I used to love the one-rupee arcade video games," he remembers, “for which I used to steal or beg. But this academy, and especially football, gave me a purpose in life." Today, Kumar is the chief cashier at a bank and has an All India Football Federation D-Licence, the first licence held by any professional coach. He gives half his salary to the academy and helps out both as an accountant and a coach. “I owe everything I’ve learnt in life to Sylvester bhaiyya and this academy."

Sylvester Peter (centre).
Sylvester Peter (centre).

Football gives these children their first chance to stand as equals in society, and even shine on the big stage. “We have beaten teams from big clubs like Bengaluru FC, FC Goa and Delhi Dynamos," says Peter (My Angels has defeated Bengaluru FC’s full-strength U-11 team from its residential academy). “It isn’t simply about competing, but also about winning, which vindicates our work and adds belief."

Peter’s work has not gone unnoticed. Xevi Marce, director of FC Barcelona’s youth schools at the time, and Robin Singh, a national team player, have visited the academy (Singh in 2013 and Marce in 2012) and interacted with the children. India’s national team captain Sunil Chhetri too came and spoke to the children during My Angels’ visit to Bengaluru.

The academy won the 2012 Young Star Challenge, which was sponsored by English club Manchester United, and were crowned Delhi’s West Zone School champions the same year. Its players have earned calls to the 2012 Barcelona training camp in Delhi and Liverpool’s international academy in Pune in 2014. They’ve even earned a training stint in France at FC Metz, a top-division French club. Football has taken them places they could never have imagined.

Peter, who works as a counsellor and a motivational speaker, has been roped in to reform Delhi’s Tihar Jail prisoners through football.

The sport is bringing about change in other parts of the country too. In Sikkim, former drug users are finding acceptance in society through Unicorn Football Club, which comprises 22 players. Seventeen of them had been in isolation as drug addicts. In rural Jharkhand, young girls are fighting gender bias in a conservative society by taking up the sport—some have even travelled abroad. In conflict-strewn Kashmir too, girls are defying patriarchy and politics to play for the first women’s football team from the state and find their voices.

In eastern Uttar Pradesh, parts of which are notorious for their criminals and mafia leaders, the Awadh Mutineers Football Academy is “a small experiment to add value to the area through football", says Sunny Narang, chief mentor and co-founder of Anglian Football, which provides the academy technical expertise. “If these kids remain out of trouble and we can train them to be professional footballers, we can look at expanding to other regions as well."

The Mutineers, formed in 2015, are located at Akbarpur in Ambedkar district, where Dalits and Muslims form a large proportion of the population and the majority of people are economically backward. It supports the schooling and football education of 21 children.

Given football’s community-driven traditions and working-class roots, its potential in bringing people closer is unrivalled in sport.

When Mizoram was ravaged by floods in June, Mumbai-based footballers Ashutosh Mehta and Jayesh Rane, the first from outside the North-East to cross the cultural divide and play for a top-tier Mizo club, Aizawl FC, rallied their fraternity by launching a fund-raiser. Among its top contributors were Minerva Punjab FC, a family-owned football club in north India, and the Yellow Brigade, a Mumbai FC supporters’ club.

The North-East, in fact, uses football as a bridge to the rest of the country. Aizawl FC, the national champions this year, will be pivotal in mainstreaming Mizoram, says the club’s owner Robert Royte. Shillong Lajong FC, the first pan-regional club from the North-East, continues to be the region’s flag-bearer, inspiring clubs such as Aizawl and Imphal-based Neroca FC, the first top-division club from Manipur.

Kerala, a state known for its passion for football, was dormant for a while. But Kerala Blasters, the Indian Super League side, is changing that.

Up north, Ranjit Bajaj, owner of Minerva in Mohali, Punjab, is confident of emulating Sikkim and creating an environment where youth choose football over drugs, a major concern for the state. From neighbouring Jammu and Kashmir, second-division club Real Kashmir FC made a trip to Scotland in July, the first football team from the state to go on a foreign tour. There’s hope that football can put Jammu and Kashmir in the news for the right reasons again.

While cricket and hockey thrive almost exclusively at the national-team level in India, football holds the power to be the catalyst for change at the grass roots. Maybe soon, with a football at their feet, anybody in India could dare to dream big again.

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