We don’t want to sell poverty.
We don’t want to pitch third world challenges.
We don’t want to instigate charity.
We are not doing any favours to the world.
We are merely exploring possibilities.
Can a team of women from the same community scale the highest peaks in Indian football?
This is KKM Sangam Vihar FC.
The human collective’s potential is yet to be harnessed. A congregation of like-minded souls can surpass the limits of what’s possible. What can be done when people believe very little is possible? We want to shake people up to a pleasant, but uncomfortable surprise.
We are not present on the football field to click pictures or to engage in promotional activities. We are not in the business of covering deprivation; only that of winning, and winning by being easy-going on the eye. Ultimately, we must only be judged on our philosophy. The beautiful game must be played the beautiful way.
Sangam Vihar is one of Asia’s largest unauthorised urban slums – a marginalised area filled with daily wage workers and migrant labourers. However, our economic backgrounds have nothing to do with our identity. There shall be no further mention of this in this piece or otherwise – we make no excuses. Our performances, our results and our football speak for themselves – you may not want to admit it – we are equals, on and off the pitch.
Innovation, quality, building a sustainable outfit – irrespective of challenges or resources – remains a long-term process. SVFC aims to be a baby step from apathy to empathy; empathy for a more just society and not sympathy towards a malnourished portrait.
As we prepare to compete with the Delhi’s elite in the Football Delhi Women’s Premier League with an average age of 15, the possibilities seem limitless. Four years into the nine-year player development pathway, the proof of the process is in the multiple puddings that we have been serving.
It is well-established that children react to their environment. From my own experience of having spent 12 years at a government school, the broken benches, dilapidated classrooms, defunct toilets led to a lazy ambience of teacher-student bonding, festivities being resurrected, and mud pitches being turned into battle fields.
Seven weeks into my Teach for India fellowship, a few water bottles served as cones, classrooms transformed into playgrounds and lunch breaks became matchdays. The Khel Khel Mein Foundation was born in 2015 after organising a couple of school leagues.
I may have exited the classroom post the completion of the fellowship, but the playgrounds remained, deeply embedded within the students and me. The pieces of the jigsaw puzzle were clear, but they still had to be assembled.
It was not until the end of 2017 that the idea of KKM SVFC was seeded. One of our coaches had left at short notice – one of the perils of working in a community-based social ‘start-up.’ I have attempted to coach football in bits and pieces since 2014, an attempt that continues till date.
The questions remain the same every day.
Why am I coaching them?
What are we trying to achieve?
When will we reach our destination?
Cliched, stereotypical questions have existed in the system since time immemorial.
What can a bunch of kids with no proper nutrition, playspaces or parental support do?
Will a mismatch in resources and privilege also result in a mismatch on the field?
Indian women’s football remains an amateurish affair. As the only women’s outfit in North India to function 12 months a year and a lack of other teams at the women’s youth level, our story has led to us playing open category women’s tournaments (50%) or boys/men’s teams (30%).
Four-fifths of our nearly 12000 minutes over the last three and a half seasons have come against physically stronger opponents. We have been termed lunatics. Maybe Indian football needs more of these lunatics.
We continue to remain gender and age agnostic when it comes to seeking game-time. At the end of SVFC’s first season, we travelled to Dehradun to play in an open-age tournament with our squad hovering around the ages of 11.
Fancy ideas. Thoroughly smashed. All matches lost. Stronger, tougher, older opponents walked all over us.
The walks through narrow alleys filled knee-deep with sewage water. The theory sessions stemming from the Pep Guardiola philosophy. The Cryuffian 4 v 4 drills in a public park where loitering is allowed. but footballs are not. “Respected” civic authorities asking you to vacate ‘non-playing zones’. All for nothing? Certainly not.
To build a golden generation of athletes willing to push the envelope of what’s possible, patience and process is key. The Indian doctrine prefers the destination over the road. “The way we play” remains a generational behavioural change, akin to getting people to stop chewing paan or to stop them from driving on the incorrect side of the road.
Countries spend decades on perfecting game models, only for innovation to shatter them. In that context, the Sangam Vihar way has taken and will take time to even come close to perfection. The more we rate lopsided scorelines over encouraging patterns in play – the farther we stray from the process.
Football theory we had learnt to debate; social theory not so much.
What do you do when a girl’s father tells you that “14” is the age at which plans for a wedding should start and football should stop? “21 tak koi baat nahi” (No question of waiting till she’s 21), comes the answer. Only the mother’s strict intervention of “Khelegi..jabtak ho sakega khelegi…aap kuch nahi bologe” (She’ll play until she wants to. You don’t say anything) draws forth a response of “Chalo theek hai, 16 tak” (Alright, till she’s 16).
This type of bargaining we weren’t prepared for. Tara Ansari’s mother keeps pushing beyond societal boundaries till date which is why she accompanies her daughter and the entire squad to Bangalore, Goa, Ahmedabad. Mrs. Ansari watches from the stands, amplifying her daughter’s voice, and Mr Ansari has turned a new leaf. These days, he calls up for match results and celebrates jubilantly after a win. “Maine bahut dua manga tha…jitna hi tha hi..” (I had prayed for a win, it had to happen).
What is a community club good for if it doesn’t bring the community closer? Delivering meals during the COVID-19 lockdown, arranging for rations and medical supplies, making sure vaccinations slots are booked, ensuring people remember their slots and get Covaxin/Covishield – all of this carried out by 15-year-olds. It must be noted that these activities are different from the yoga and smile sessions defined as leadership skills by reputed sports for development organisations.
It is worth our while to create a melody working in the community than deal with the cacophony that comes due to the hobnobbing with the top brass of football. One section clearly understand what ‘good football’ is and the other are set with their ideas.
“Clearing the ball is an intellectual defeat,” said Xavi. Those cheering aimless hoof-ball – are they the intellectuals? Those asking the keeper not to play with her feet – are they the visionaries? Those who want to turn a football match into a wrestling one – do they get the larger picture?
The system remains filled with ideas that have permeated from the 1960s. Age cheating remains rampant. Youth football in the country remains the anti-thesis of the Sangam Vihar ideology – the Wile E. Coyote to our “Road Runner.” “If you’re not good enough, we’ll make you young enough,” comes the cry from these illuminated football decision-makers.
“Height kam hai” (the height is less), says the knowledgeable selector about the game called football. Bengaluru-based ‘modern’ academies reckon the Sangam Vihar women are not tall or strong enough. You wonder what Lionel Messi or Andres Iniesta would have to say about this peculiar form of assessment.
Even at this tender age, rousing heavy-metal performances (13-0, 7-0 at the Football Delhi Women’s League) have forced the hands of selectors. Eight with an average age of 13 had made it to Delhi’s Under-16 camp for the nationals two years ago, the last time age-group nationals were held. Don’t try to close the door on us – we will break the door down.
Despite the pandemic, we are on course to hit 20,000 competitive minutes by the time we turn 18. Equivalent to their European counterparts and eight times that of their Indian peers around the same age bracket.
All this has meant immense sacrifice. One-hour long player-led recovery sessions, long, bumpy bus rides spent half asleep leaning on each other, journeys across the length and breadth of the country in the sleeper and general compartments of trains, walks of 12 kms at a stretch, entire squads of 20 cramming into one house or 8 stuffing themselves into one auto have all been undertaken just to get onto the field of play.
Sorry, Will Smith, but our ideas are a bit different.
This is the pursuit of excellence.
This is KKM Sangam Vihar FC.
A storm is brewing. Our journey has just begun.
(Anirban Ghosh is the co-founder of KKM Sangam Vihar FC. He quit a lucrative corporate career to pursue his dream of empowering children from marginalized sections of the society)
DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Away End or its staff.
This article was originally published as part of the Thirteenth edition of Kalpanthu’s newsletter Vuvuzela. The newsletter costs just $7 or 550 rupees a year and empowers us to keep our YouTube channel for Indian football documentaries free for all. To subscribe/check out our content, visit https://theawayend.co/kalpanthu/