In the Indian state of West Bengal, and in Kolkata especially, fans are as passionate about football as they are about cricket. This year, a few individuals in the city became proud owners of football teams participating in the Padatik Football League. While the team owners may not be famous Bollywood actors or the league as glamorous as the Indian Super League, the Padatik Football League is a one-of-a-kind event that was started in 2009.
So what’s so special about it? The participants are the children of women from red light areas in the state, prisoners, drug addicts, slum dwellers and tribals. These children don’t have any coaching, but they play with such passion that the league has gradually gained recognition for its work.
Organised by the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), the league has given these children a chance to integrate themselves into society. A unique body, the DMSC is made up entirely of women from West Bengal’s red light areas and their children who work to create solidarity within the community. While the DMSC conducted the league under the radar over the past 6 years, this year, by auctioning the teams, the league has firmly put itself on the map.
The league is important because it attempts to breaks stigmas and gives otherwise disadvantaged children something to look forward to. While children from these backgrounds often turn to drugs or petty theft, the kids involved in the league have something to focus on. More often than not, the young athletes have been victims of bullying and name-calling because of where they come from. But now, people have begun to recognise and praise the kids as football representatives from their respective neighbourhoods. Students who once told these children to keep their heads down and go straight home from school are now attending matches and cheering them on. Teachers understand as well, giving the players time off for training.
By opening the league up to the public and auctioning the 16 teams, the organisers have seen a phenomenal response. On January 24th this year, the league’s inaugural match drew a crowd of around 250 spectators. The league matches were attended by proud mothers cheering on their sons. While many women couldn’t make it to cheer for their sons and brothers, over the course of the league football legends like Chuni Goswami and P K Bannerjee attended matches along with televisions stars. Retired government officers, businessmen, social workers, bankers and artists were glad to pay the 7,000 rupees it cost to become team owners, and all 16 teams were auctioned off.
Believing that it is part of his social responsibility, retired banker and widower Ashoke Dutta named his team Suchitra 7 after his wife. As a reward for their efforts, the best performing teams will also win cash prizes in addition to the invaluable respect of their peers.
“These are marginalised sections of society. It feels good to be able to do something that brings them to the mainstream.” – Ashoke Dutta, Owner, Suchitra 7
Most of the boys are all big fans of the English Premier League. Mushtaq Gazi, a 14-year old who plays for Basirhat has a Cristiano Ronaldo backpack, but insists he is a fan of Lionel Messi. More than anything, they just want to enjoy a good game of football, and this league gives them the opportunity to keep their minds constructively occupied. Even though facilities are poor and the field dusty, with hardly any grass, it never stops the enthusiastic young athletes from giving their all.
“I have answered to my call of social duty. I will be very happy if a small contribution from my side can change the lives of these underprivileged kids, who are often the victims of social discrimination and stigma.” – Subrata Gangopadhyay, Owner, Sonagachhi
The league has been a great platform for young children who show tremendous potential and promise. Despite a lack of access to proper coaching, or any regulated diet and exercise, more than seven of the league players have gone on to play for the state team. A few boys have even played for India’s U15 and U16 teams, while a select few were given the chance to train at Manchester United. A club from Denmark has invited the boys to play there, but the DMSC needs to raise money for the travel before they can send the young footballers.
Here’s a video about young Rajib Roy, a participant from the Padatik Football League, who was selected to go to Manchester United in 2014:
Proud about the massive success of the league, Ms. Bharati Dey, Secretary, DMSC has higher goals that she wants to achieve. While she’s overwhelmed by the response of the citizens, she’s hoping that the league will soon have women’s teams participating as well.
Well done to the DMSC for this great initiative! The Padatik Football League has given hope to children who had been red carded from the mainstream. But now, it is giving them a path back to a better way of life.