July 21, 2019
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India's poorest kids turn to soccer in a nation where cricket reigns supreme

By Indira Guerrero

Siliguri, India, Jul 12 (efe-epa).- Hari is a rebel. Sporting a borrowed shirt over his small, frail frame, he waits on a soccer field in a bustling Indian neighborhood to hit the ball as a symbol of rebellion against the hegemony of cricket in a country where the Gentleman’s Game attracts more attention and money than any other sport.

Hari's T-shirt, like the ones worn by the other children accompanying him, is not just any jersey. It bears the No. 10 of Lionel Messi, the Argentinian megastar who stands out in West Bengal’s Siliguri slum, which is adorned with posters of national cricket heroes and Indian movie stars.

It's 11 am and the kids have gathered for a talent test conducted by the Indian non-profit Sudeva, which works to fulfill the dreams of kids aspiring to make it in the elite world of professional soccer.

"No (not a cricket player). Footballer," Hari responds during a discussion with his friends about whether he would like to play any another sport.

If not a soccer player, "then a truck driver," quips Hari, who is of Nepalese origin and a self-declared Messi fan.

"The Sudeva exploration team works 24 hours a day. The co-founders of Sudeva personally visit remote areas, towns, and villages to select talented children," the non-profit's co-founder, Anuj Gupta, told EFE.

Football in India, which ranks 101st in the FIFA rankings behind Palestine, has been relatively unpopular due to lack of funding and infrastructure, relegating the world's most popular sport to state leagues only that can hardly hold a candle to the popularity and devotion cricket enjoys in the country of 1.3 billion people with 65 percent of its population under the age of 35.

Despite having a population greater than the whole of Europe, the overseers of soccer in India have failed to form a consistent team and players in the national team have not managed to excel outside the country.

India has never participated in the FIFA World Cup. But it did qualify by default for the 1950 World Cup in Brazil when regional neighbors like the Philippines, Indonesia and Myanmar pulled out from the qualifier round.

But the Indians chose not to go citing various reasons, including preferring the Olympics over the World Cup.

Compare this with cricket in India, where the game is followed like a religion. India has hosted two cricket world cups since 1975, when the sport's global governing body, the International Cricket Council, began organizing it. The country has, so far, become the world champion twice.

According to Gupta, soccer in India faces major difficulties in the form of poor infrastructure, lack of proper coaching, training and the absence of children's teams – the key stage to start training potential talent.

In addition, a lot of these children who are passionate about the sport suffer from malnutrition, which consequently affects their sporting skills, said Gupta, who is also one of the vice presidents of the Delhi Soccer Association.

Faced with an unbalanced sporting ecosystem, Sudeva is trying to reverse the situation by offering selected children throughout the country – mostly from humble origins – residence, professional training, nutritional program, physiotherapy and yoga classes.

The non-profit bought 85 percent stake in the Spanish football team CD Olimpic de Xativa from the southeastern Valencia region, an acquisition that has allowed a group of children to fly to Spain and train among the ranks of the third-division club.

India hosted the FIFA Under-17 World Cup, a biennial international football tournament, in 2017 to popularize the sport. But the Indian team was eliminated in the group stage and ended up at the bottom of the final ranking.

Still, soccer has started gaining ground in India and the credit partially goes to national players like current captain Sunil Chhetri and Bhaichung Bhutia, who both hail from Sikkim, in India’s mountainous northeast region.

For Sudeva, a major talent mine is located in northeast India and the special characteristics of players coming from this region are attributed to "a natural ecosystem of athletes" in the region with natural genetics inclined to great physical stamina, Sudeva co-founder Vijay Hakari told EFE.

"For example, children who live in the mountains are good runners, they are fast, and they play very well as wingers," he said.

This clear passion for soccer in the region is perceived in the frenzy of fans shaking stands and chanting slogans while others enjoy steaming cups of tea during a match of the Indian Super League held in the northeastern state of Assam.

Although it accounts for less than four percent of the country's population, the northeastern region produces half of India's players, according to league data.

"It's India's Brazil," said a fan.

That's why Sudeva goes there often. During the talent hunt, rows of little aspirants await with telephone numbers scribbled on their arms and legs.

"It's for them to call my parents if I'm selected," explained one of the children.

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