“It doesn’t matter how much you have; it matters how willing you are to share.”
When Dr. Abhijeet Barse talks about his father’s motto in life, it immediately strikes a chord. How many, after all, would think about sharing when they don’t have much for themselves? Vijay Barse, however, is an exception. Now at 77, Vijay is technically a retired sports professor but is anything but. He remains very much a teacher, continuing to share his resources, ideas, passion and compassion in an initiative that he has diligently built, brick by brick, over the last two decades – Slum Soccer, an NGO built to empower the underprivileged.
There’s a sense of overwhelming pride, warmth and gratitude in his voice as it slowly sinks in that his story is now reaching out to every nook and corner of the country. With the release of Nagraj Manjule’s Jhund, starring Amitabh Bachchan – this time as the original Vijay – Slum Soccer’s tale is for everyone to see. “It feels incredible that this era’s mahanayak is playing the role of a common man like me. There’s no bigger happiness than this,” Vijay says, humbly. For a man who has now connected over 70,000 slum children across India and shown them a path towards a better future through football, common is a word one would seldom use. When that is pointed out, he is quick to retaliate, “I have always been a common man, and I would always like to remain one.”
Call it the way he looks at life, or the empathy that almost comes naturally to him considering his tough upbringing, Vijay prefers a life where he gets to spend his time with underprivileged children, talking to them, understanding them and then formulating a plan to provide them a better life. Having grown up as one of 12 siblings in Bhandara, Maharashtra, he learnt the value of sharing very early on. “Ever since the first job he got, he kept in mind that he had to give back,” says Abhijeet.
I realized that if I give them [children from the slums] a platform to channel their energy towards something good and give them a real football in hand with a better ground, they’ll stay away from trouble and have a shot at a better life.
“I too was underprivileged. I had a tough upbringing but sports kept me going – I used to run a lot, swim a lot and at the end of the day, go to an akhaada to practice wrestling,” Vijay says. It was perhaps this connection that lingered on when in 2001, he came across a group of slum kids playing football in the rain with a makeshift ball they had created with a broken bucket. “I was on my way to my college when it started raining heavily. I took shelter under a tree when I saw these kids and it was a sight to see.”
He noticed that throughout the time, the kids not only enjoyed the game, but in that moment, were so deeply invested in it that they forgot all about falling into any trouble. “These kids get addicted to tobacco and alcohol from a very early age. But there, I realized that if I give them a platform to channel their energy towards something good and give them a real football in hand with a better ground, they’ll stay away from trouble and have a shot at a better life.”
This thought resulted in the making of Jhoparpatti Football – a name Vijay had coined for the initiative. The idea was to spend a couple of hours with these children every day to teach them the sport. “As teachers, it’s the least we can do. It’s our responsibility to show them the right path, right?” says Vijay. It was entirely self-funded at first, but the response was such that he could connect 128 slums in Nagpur and 12 villages in Maharashtra within the first year itself.
22-year-old Vikas Mishra is one such glowing example. A student of Slum Soccer, and now a community leader, Mishra struggled with addiction and was involved in several petty crimes. “At 15, I was in jail for six months following a robbery,” he says. Feeling alienated from his family, friends and school, he was falling deeper and deeper into a rabbit hole that seemed to have no end. One day, he saw a group of slum kids practicing football in a field nearby in the village of Bokhara, Maharashtra. “I was sitting outside while they were getting trained by a coach working under Slum Soccer, who then enquired about me. The kids were all so afraid of me that they kept quiet,” he recalls. The coach eventually called him to talk, but he felt so afraid of getting judged – he was chewing tobacco even then – that he left the field instead.
The next day, he came back to the ground. And this time, it was empty. He took the ball and started playing with it when the coach reached out to him, asking about his background. “When he learned about my story, he was shocked too.” He shared the incident with Vijay, who, to everyone’s surprise, asked him to let Vikas play. “Back then, I didn’t talk much. I just used to follow what the coach used to teach,” he says.
It was the feeling of inclusivity that drove Vikas towards Slum Soccer. He not only developed an interest in the sport but felt like a part of a larger community where he was heard, where people wanted him to grow too. Here, slowly and steadily, he came into his own, adopting a healthier lifestyle and a life goal he never thought he would have. “I wanted to learn, I wanted to run as fast as the other kids. But [Vijay] sir made me realize that it was my addiction that was making me run out of energy. That helped me combat it, honestly.”
Cut to 2022, and he’s sober, having represented India at the Homeless World Cup in Mexico. He credits Vijay ‘uncle,’ as he calls him fondly, and his patience in his development. “He encouraged me to participate more and more. It started with district-level tournaments, and moved to state-level and national-level tournaments.” The NGO transformed Vikas into a confident young leader who could now dream wholeheartedly of becoming the state’s biggest football coach.
When people see children like me, who dress and talk a certain way, they treat us differently. All we need is for them to see us as we are: children. I hope that the film makes them feel so.
It was never an easy ride for Slum Soccer though. Vijay’s empathy wasn’t a new trait, and often caused a friction among him and his family members. “Growing up, I would see kids from similar background having more than I did. And that was majorly because my father used to spend a chunk of his earnings to help the kids around him, years before he even thought of Slum Soccer,” says Abhijeet. “He’d spend a lot of time training them and helping them get sports quotas in colleges.” This resulted in him moving away from Nagpur to the US, where he became a professor himself.
In 2006, things took a turn for the NGO when Abhijeet decided to come back to India and join hands with his father. “As cliched as it sounds, I had everything in the US but something was amiss. I had to come back and give back, the way he was,” says Abhijeet. Joining in as the CEO, he started a marketing campaign and an extensive website, soon after which their first funding came through. Slum Soccer was now backed by the FIFA Foundation.
Today, they have several projects in place, which includes using latest technology to educate children about a variety of subjects, including English and Mathematics, on ground, with a football. They have a project dedicated to children on the deaf spectrum that enables them to learn sports, and another that spreads awareness on the importance of menstrual hygiene for their young members.
With the release of a film as massive as Jhund, their expectations aren’t limited to the box office. “It’s overwhelming to see a simple story getting reflected in such a simple yet powerful way,” says Vijay, who recently watched the film with director Manjule. For him, the fact that his emotions have magnified into a film that may reach out to states where he hadn’t is a big win in itself. For son Abhijeet, it also means further growth. “I hope that it either inspires others to create more such initiatives or to become a part of ours so that we can take the NGO to every possible child who may need one,” he says.
For Vikas, who even has the title track of the film as his ringtone, it’s more about changing mindsets and the way his community is treated. “When people see children like me, who dress and talk a certain way, they treat us differently. All we need is for them to see us as we are: children. I hope that the film makes them feel so; I hope it inspires them to make us feel included too.”
Jhund may be out now, but there’s no looking back for Slum Soccer. Vijay now plans to take it a notch forward and train children with a more focused approach on football development. He has now created a football academy, wherein he plans to give flight to his children’s wings. The idea is to train a selected batch of kids extensively for five years, while taking care of their educational, medical and everyday needs, to develop them into pro-level athletes. “By the fifth year, we aspire to send atleast one child every year to the Indian Super League (ISL),” he reveals.
“Slum Soccer was a family initiative at first, driven by me, my wife [Ranjana Barse] and my son. But over the years, so many coaches, volunteers, engineers, doctors and pro-level players have joined us in this cause. No way will we stop now. We are just getting started,” he says, signing off.