A group of young children clad in bright blue and orange jerseys are doing warm-ups, stretching exercises, sprinting, jogging and practicing their kicks, tackling, blocking, defending and attacking. Their coaches are helping them learn a combination of speed, strength, agility and power. After a rigorous practice session, the kids compete in a match, and their entire focus is on trying to win the game.
While this could be a scene straight out of an elite football academy anywhere in the world, this is being played out in the heartland of Chhattisgarh, in what was once a hotbed of Naxalite violence.
Established in January 2017, the Sukma Football Academy is an initiative by the District Administration of Dakshin Bastar Dantewada District to use football as a medium of empowerment. It has been built by utilising the District Collector’s Fund, which also covers the Academy’s operational expenses.
The Academy’s vision is to groom youngsters to take up football as a career and, to this end, it provides the necessary infrastructure required to nurture professional players of the highest caliber and uses scientifically advanced coaching methods. Today, there are 40 talented children, some from the remotest regions in the district, being coached at the Academy.
The Academy collaborated with a local NGO to unearth raw talent as part of a well-designed programme. After reviewing more than 1,000 children, 90 children were selected, of which 40 could join.
According to Virupaksh Puranik, District Sports Officer, says, “If you look around in Sukma, today we have a number of educational institutions that provide the much-needed quality education. If something was missing, it was a good sports academy that would help in the all-round development of students. The Sukma Football Academy hopes to give the children that opportunity.”
Most of the children come from agricultural households, with families dependent on daily wages, and families that have been deeply affected by the aftermath of Naxalism. The children, aged between 8 and 11 years, attend local schools for their scholastic needs, while the Academy becomes their second home. Every morning and evening, the children hit the football ground, learn a little bit more about the game, improve their strength, and become better players and better individuals.
Himanshu Yadav, a little boy from Gongla, a small village in Sukma, enthusiastically volunteers to share his experience of being part of the Academy. With a shy smile, he says, “I am enjoying the training sessions. I want to become a football player.”
According to Virupaksh, a few months back, Himanshu’s demeanour was a far cry from his present smiling and confident persona. “Today, Himanshu is brimming with confidence, but a few months ago it wasn’t so. Football is helping children like him develop self-confidence, in addition to honing their playing skills.”
The world over, football has been known to enable development, not only of individuals but even nations as a whole. Football is seen as a unifier, something that breaks barriers -- political, ethnic, socio-religious, and even economic. Built on this founding principle, the Sukma Football Academy aims help children of the district overcome challenges and work towards a better tomorrow through football.
Less than a decade ago, the rest of the country knew the town of Sukma via such headlines: ‘Naxals ambush CRPF team in Sukma’; ‘15 Naxals arrested in Chhattisgarh's insurgency-hit Sukma’; ‘More than 20 Naxals killed in Sukma encounter’. Gunfire, bomb explosions and violence, this was an everyday reality for the people of the district which severely lagged behind in development. Education was one of the areas that took a severe beating. Between 2004 and 2009, more than 120 schools in the region were destroyed and just 15 percent of these became functional after reconstruction activities were undertaken. Today, even though Naxalism’s hold in the region has weakened and development is catching up, some scars from the past remain. The Academy is an attempt to help children here overcome any challenges, build their strengths, and expand their horizons.
The attentive faces, a fierce competitive spirit, the loud encores -- all these are sure to keep a viewer hooked to the football drill at the Academy. While the children haven’t yet got a chance to display the skills they learnt and the values they imbibed so far at the academy, the eagerness for one such opportunity is palpable.
Virupaksh says, “Seeing the positive transformation of the children and the power of football to seed that transformation, we are trying to collaborate with professional football associations or relevant institutions to ensure that they are able to live their dream of become football professionals, even after they move out of the Academy that was once their second home.”