Football dreams: The league inspiring Indian sex workers’ children

The first thing that gives you a clue this is no ordinary football game is the crowd.

More than half are women.

The eastern Indian city of Kolkata (Calcutta) is crazy about football but this many women at a game is unusual, especially on such a warm afternoon. But it’s the final for the Padatik Football League for the children of sex workers and the women are out in full force to cheer their boys on.

One woman has a handkerchief on her head to keep the sun off. Another has brought cucumber slices in a lunchbox. One of them watching the match and talking on her phone at the same time shouts, “Good save, good save!” as the goalkeeper blocks a shot.

“This is about moral support,” she says. “But I like sports. I used to play basketball.”

She’s Satabdi Saha and she’s part of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), the 65,000-strong sex worker collective who have been organising this tournament, the only one of its kind in India, for five years now.

We run a home for the children of sex workers,” Bharati Dey, the secretary of DMSC tells the BBC. “But children would drop out of school because of stigma. We needed something they could focus on. And everyone likes football.”

Women were in majority at the matchImage copyrightRonny Sen
Image captionWomen were in majority at the match

This year there was a new twist. Players were divided into 16 teams, each named after a red light district in West Bengal.

Each team is a franchise with an “owner”. “Film stars like Shah Rukh Khan buy cricket teams,” says Dey. “Why can’t we do the same? I am proud we have 16 teams and all 16 sold.” The amounts are modest – Rs 7,000 (£70; $99) a team but the social validation matters.

One franchise owner is a retired bank manager, one a painter. One has named the team after his late mother.

Buddhadev HaldarImage copyrightRonny Sen
Image captionBuddhadev Haldar says the tournament has helped change mindsets

Sitting in the club room, Buddhadev Haldar, the wiry 17-year-old defender for the Durbar Sports Academy, one of the finalists, says he had to get used to being called names. “People would say we have come from that place. Our mothers were no good. I would feel very alone.”

Mushtaq Gazi, 14, with the Basirhat team says: “We had to teach ourselves football. We didn’t have a proper coach. We didn’t have a real field to play in. When we played in the village, people would say nasty things.”

Their friend Sonu Kundu says they were told to keep their heads down, go to school, study and come back. Football, he says, broke the ice. Now other students come to the matches and cheer them on, while teachers give them time off for practice.

Sonu Kundu with mother SwapnaImage copyrightRonny Sen
Image captionSonu Kundu’s mother Swapna has worked hard to ensure that her son got a chance to play football

Kundu’s mother Swapna put him in a hostel at the age of three even though it broke her heart.

“He would cry and I’d bring him back home for 15 days and then take him back. It was double expense, but I didn’t want him to stay where I worked. I was afraid he’d become bad.”

She does not get to see him play often because she cannot leave the small rice hotel she runs in Kolkata’s red light district. “But it gives me great pleasure to see him on the field,” she says touching her heart. “I have raised him with great difficulty, you see.”

As the game begins, Prabir Ray, one of the team owners, gathers his boys in a circle for a pep talk. “There are many elders watching this game. No foul play, no foul language,” he tells them.

In a way it’s much more than a football match.

It is an examination of sorts, a rite of passage for these boys to the mainstream. An assortment of celebrities have gathered to watch them, from old football legends like Chuni Goswami and PK Banerjee to a soap opera star to the Personnel Officer of Calcutta Tramways.

Indian football legends Chuni Goswami and P K BanerjeeImage copyrightRonny Sen
Image captionIndian football legends Chuni Goswami and P K Banerjee also watched the final

The field isn’t much, dusty, without a blade of grass, “as bald as my head” quips 79-year old Banerjee.

But football has opened doors for these boys. At least seven or eight have gone on to play for the West Bengal state team and even for India’s Under-15 and Under-16 teams.

A few went for special training to Manchester United in England.

Dr Smarajit Jana, the public health scientist who founded DMSC in 1995, says a Danish club has invited the boys to train with them but they need to raise the money for their travel.

Women applauded every move of the players from both teamsImage copyrightRonny Sen
Image captionWomen applauded every move of the players from both teams

The boys, without fail, say they want to be big footballers. “My hero is Messi,” says Gazi, despite his Cristiano Ronaldo backpack.

But it won’t be easy. They lack a proper diet. They have more will power than facilities. “But we are used to challenges,” says Ms Dey.

Once, she says, no one thought sex workers could be health workers as well. “But we showed them we could do it. Now it’s the turn of our sons.”

As the boys get their medals, she shares her own secret dream.

“We used to have a girls football team too. But the mothers showed little interest then. I want to revive it. Some day soon.”

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