For over 30 kids, dwelling in the slums of Burhanpur, a small district on the border of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, football is an absolute game changer.
All thanks to their 21-year-old football coach Surendra Sharma!
Born in a small village called Kesur in Madhya Pradesh’s Dhar district, Surendra was only three years old when his father passed away. His mother felt more estranged with the family and the toddler than ever after her husband’s death and disappeared down the road to be never seen again. While two of his sisters were left to the care of his maternal uncle, a young Surendra was entrusted to the care of his maternal aunt who raised him in Burhanpur.
Surendra was determined to take up football as a career from a tender age and had to put up a fight to follow his dream.
“My aunt raised me with the same love and care she raised her two sons with. Growing up she was concerned about my decision to play professional football. She would reiterate how playing a game that isn’t popular in India, may possibly have no concrete future and I was only whiling my time away.” But Surendra also mentions, how he had anticipated her reaction. It was the common of most Indian parents about a career in sports, let alone football.
Today, Surendra works at a coach at the Football School of India. He uses his own salary to train over 30 underprivileged kids from the nearby slums free of cost. “These kids belong to families who live on a hand-to-mouth existence, Most of them are extremely passionate about the sport but cannot afford buying regular school shoes, let alone football studs. They used to play barefoot for the longest time. I train them and fund them in smaller ways, be it buying shoes or football kits, from my own salary,” says Surendra.
Most of these kids lack opportunities due to financial distress at home and the social evil of the caste system. They are wards of daily wage labourers, handloom & powerloom workers, vegetable vendors, househelps etc.
Surendra, who started working with them 2 years ago, is setting up his dream organisation to help these football aspirants which is set to launch next month.
A testimony to his efforts is the fact that in the short duration of two years, two players have been selected to play I-league. Of the lot, three girls have qualified to train in Delhi for the Subroto Cup. These include, Kamini Mahajan, the daughter of a loom labourer, Simran Shaikh whose father is a small-time driver and Vaishnavi Kuwade, whose father works as a construction supervisor
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Shedding light on the major challenge he faces in convincing parents, Surendra says, “The parents for his kids earn a average salary of only Rs 3,000-4,000 per month. You can imagine the number of sacrifices one has to make to spare money for a football kit, when you cannot even afford the next meal. So, helping them support their kids by buying football kits (which last for more than a year) is the first and biggest challenge.”
For instance, if a student qualifies to play for a tournament outside Madhya Pradesh, the financial burden can sabotage their once in a lifetime opportunity, because their parents lack the finances to pay for their travel and accommodation in bigger cities like Mumbai.
He speaks of his own challenges too : “With my finances, I am only able to support three kids completely at a time in situations like these. So sometimes, a deep sense of powerlessness takes over, when I cannot give complete support to all them. The least I can do, is to give them training free of cost.”
But slowly as the story of this young man transforming the lives of school dropouts and slum dwellers is gaining attention, a few individuals are coming forward to help. But, the help is not enough to fund all of them.
Appealing to the government for aid, Surendra says, “Belonging to the slums makes these kids no less talented. Given a chance, sky is the limit for these young football players.”
In a place like Madhya Pradesh, where football has not picked up phase yet, parents are reluctant to train their children in football, especially their daughters, expresses Surendra.
“They stare at me in horror when I tell them I want to train their girls in football. I invite them to watch the on-field training so they can experience first hand, the knowledge of the game I want to impart the students. On the playfield, it doesn’t matter who you are and what background you come from, you are part of a team first. I am trying to mould them in every way I can. The neighbourhoods they grow in are not the safest or most conducive to be raised in. When they start training, they learn and grow in smaller ways, how to act in public, engage with your teammates etc.”
The 21-year-old attributes his success to former Indian striker and founder of Football School of India, Abhishek Yadav.
A few years ago, Surendra decided to visit Goa after being told him it has a bright future for football aspirants. “Unfortunately a foot injury ruined my chances and I landed working as a guard at a resort. I met Abhishek Yadav, when his team Mumbai FC was staying there. I shared my story with him. It was he who guided me to complete my D-license in football coaching, and helped me find a job at his academy. I owe him a huge part of my life.”
He is currently training for his C-License and also pursuing his Bachelors in Physical Education from Sant Gadge University in Amravati. From participating in championships like IBER Cup in Spain to I-League and Subroto Cup, these young individuals Surendra is training have become the pride of Burhanpur.
You can connect to Surendra Sharma at email@example.com or WhatsApp him on