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Akshay Madhavan with kids from the Slum Soccer programme

Akshay Madhavan with kids from the Slum Soccer programme

It was in 2009 that Akshay Vishnu Madhavan (Manager – Strategic Sourcing, Ashok Leyland) saw 'Kicking It', a documentary that traces the lives of six 'homeless' youngsters who eventually play in the 'Homeless World Cup' in South Africa – a soccer tournament that helps them take a shot at the game as well as a meaningful life.

"It won't be too much to say that that film changed my life," says Akshay, a self-declared football fanatic. Love for the game was just the first prod. "I was amazed by the positive influence a sport can have in bringing about social change and wanted to immediately know if something like that can happen here." Soon, Akshay's search led him to Slum Soccer, a non-profit NGO founded and run by Nagpur-based Vijay Barse. The inspirational story of how Vijay Barse created Slum Soccer sealed Akshay to the cause.

Back in 2000, when Vijay Barse, a physical training teacher with Nagpur's Hislop College, was waiting out some sudden rains in a roadside shelter, he saw a bunch of poor kids kicking around a broken plastic bucket with absolute abandon and glee, totally unmindful of the rain and the slush. The scene stuck to his mind. Not only did he go back and get them a real football, but he decided to create an opportunity, a platform for more such kids to come out and play. Because, more than as a game, he saw it as an outlet for the 'child' in them – otherwise snatched away rudely by their daily struggle to live…

Soon, his farm became a playground, where he invited children from slums to play football every evening. "Each of these kids had some unhappy story back home – be it a father who was an alcoholic or drug addict, or a mother who was a commercial sex worker. So these evening football sessions became the only ray of hope for them and more importantly, kept them away from negative thoughts and self-destructive activities," explains Akshay.

From those initial days of 'jopadpatti football,' Barse's persistence has led to the more evolved Slum Soccer today: with centres across six states, drawing youngsters from urban and semi-urban slums and creating more than 10,000 'players' these past 10 years, teaching them as much soccer as empowering them with life skills. Since 2007, Slum Soccer has been part of a worldwide network called 'Street Football World', run by a partner organisation to FIFA, the sport's world governing body. Through Street Football World, Slum Soccer gets grants under the 'Football for Hope' programme, which is today, their main source of funding. The annual grant is used to buy balls, shoes, soccer kits and training cones, and to pay the salaries of 40 full-time coaches. However, Slum Soccer's administrators, including Akshay, are still volunteers.

Akshay is in fact the 'Head of Operations' at Slum Soccer. A graduate in Industrial Engineering from National Institute of Technology (NIT), Jamshedpur, he candidly admits that he was "never really the most socially conscious person." However he had seen his mother, Mallika, a professor of fine arts in a leading college in Chennai, working with autistic children and "probably it did make an impact sub-consciously," he wonders. Later, "interacting with people like Abhijeet Barse (Slum Soccer's CEO), Dr Vijay Barse and not to mention the hundreds of people who have benefitted from Slum Soccer, I have come to realize how incredibly fulfilling it really is. The last three-and-a-half years have probably shaped my future for me," he says.

A small 'office' in Santhome, Chennai becomes the meeting ground for Akshay and his team of six volunteers, some with day jobs and some, still in college. A love for the game and their belief in what Slum Soccer does has brought them together. "Setting aside time is the most important aspect. Rest would all fall in place," says Akshay who spends most of his after-office hours daily at the centre.

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