‘Football is our way of engaging with and publicising the problems surrounding homelessness around the world.’ – Deborah Ball, Homeless World Cup
When Deborah Ball first started working for the Homeless World Cup, lots of their national partners around the world told her that they couldn’t expand their football programmes on the ground because they didn’t have enough coaches. The issue was prominent especially at grassroots level, where the coaches were appointed to work not just on the football, but also needed to have the experience of working with the homeless. With this in mind, Deborah and her team designed a modular course called ‘Football First’.‘We decided on “Football First” because for us football does come first: it’s the first intervention as a tool of engagement for the national partners to work with homeless people,’ says Deborah.India has a population of 170 million living on the streets and 260 million people living on less than a dollar per day. Deborah first visited the Homeless World Cup’s Indian partner, Slum Soccer, back in 2008 to implement a coaching programme that was to be the first of it’s kind in Central India. The programme enabled Slum Soccer to conduct regular football sessions for over 800 people in 7 different areas in Central India. Seeing how successful the first programme had been, the English Premier League funded Deborah and her team to fly back to Slum Soccer base, Nagpur, in February 2012 to deliver a series of coaching project over a 17 day period.
India’s passion for cricket has, unfortunately, caused sporting associations’ attention to drift away from other sports in the country. A tragic incident earlier this month saw the death of a young footballer in Bangalore who collapsed during a game, with no medical facilities on site to come to his aid. However, a certain demand and enthusiasm for project Football First tells us that there are many reasons for football federations in India to step up their game.‘I think as more people get to see international matches and the Premier League and Champions League on TV and some of the big clubs beginning to sell their merchandise in India – there’s a growing awareness of interest in football,’ explains Deborah. ‘For us, it is an international language that you can play; you don’t even necessarily need an actual football to play with. We’ve gone back to do our second training course because the popularity is growing so much. The first coaches we trained are working on average with 60-70 young people in each session they’re running. The demand is definitely there.’
Popularity for the game doesn’t exist solely amongst the men of India. Even the women, who have been more or less absent in the cricket scene, are eagerly involved with Football First. At the first coach education programme 2 years ago, there were very few women participating, however, this year Deborah notes that 4 out of 7 of the participants are female. She describes these women as ‘great role models for other women coming through the programme’ and has expressed her amazement at the level of improvement she has seen in their game. Young women who could barely kick a ball when the first coach education programme was delivered are now playing in the state team.
‘Seeing the enthusiasm at grassroots level and, for us, the bedrock of football is that belief and developing your players, we think far more attention should be placed on creating a good solid grassroots movement to build the football culture of the country,’ says Deborah.Participants in the Football First project are people from the slums, ranging between the ages of 16-30. The project is committed to ‘bringing sporting opportunities to the most marginalised people.’ Slum Soccer and Football First work together to recruit the soon-to-be coaches, selecting them on their levels of dedication and enthusiasm towards becoming a coach, rather than their technical football skills. The initial coaching course is a 5-day course, which mentors them to become trainers. The course also teaches them communication skills, how to plan, how to record and evaluate their work, how to create the right learning environment, etc. At the end of the programme, the newly trained coaches hold a large football festival for about 140 children to demonstrate the skills they’ve learnt.
The coaches go on to train in a variety of different settings. While some of them go off and set up their own little projects, others coach in schools, for Slum Soccer, and some even land up coaching in private schools where they are able to secure a stable income to provide a comfortable lifestyle for themselves and their families.‘Slum Soccer work very hard to identify as many opportunities to practice their coaching as they can,’ says Deborah. ‘The organisation has been able to set up centres in many more areas than they have previously, expanding the coaching opportunities available.’
The Homeless World Cup organisation believes that football brings people together, and it is with that thought in mind that they began working with Slum Soccer. Slum Soccer’s programme involves bringing in health educators, psychologists, and people who talk through any issues they feel the players might be faced with or might need support with. Slum Soccer finds appropriate government bodies or organisations to come in and fill the gaps in the players’ lives, providing access to services that they are otherwise unable to connect with. All this is done through the creation of a simple football project that will ultimately better these people’s lives.
‘Everybody who would like the opportunity to play should be given that opportunity,’ says Deborah. In the long term, Football First would love to see Slum Soccer have a presence in every slum in India, to offer opportunities where people would like to be playing football. Deborah believes that with the enthusiasm that has been shown, such ambitions are not unattainable.With a large homeless population, India needs a project like Football First that unite people and add structure to their lives. Having to turn up to matches and training sessions, having to make sure they’re clean and sober enough to be able to do that, those are all issues that can be tackled just by involving them in a team where they feel needed.‘They become connected with other people again,’ Deborah explains. ‘I think one of the key similarities that homeless people feel around the world is a real sense of isolation. It gives them a new motivation, builds their confidence, their self esteem. It builds lots of different soft skills; skills that are transferable to the rest of their lives.’
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