The long ball. It is the oldest tactic in the football playbook, and one that Indian football has long been adapted to playing. H Noor Basha, however, has other plans.
“You boys are young. So long ball is fine now. But as you grow up, you will need to refine your passing technique… play more short passes. We’ll be learning how to push pass in the coming days,” he tells an attentive group, aged between five and 15.
We meet in the playground of a private school in Valasaravakkam on Sunday, where Basha — a physical education teacher employed with a private school in Adyar — is attempting to train children in the way of possession football (a playing strategy used by teams). It is what the young football coach does during his time away from work — train more children.
Having spent his childhood growing up in Vyasarpadi, Basha, 29, understands the impact that sport, especially football, can have on children from economically disadvantaged sections of society.
“Vyasarpadi had an image… one of drugs, murder and rampant alcoholism. Today, the place is synonymous with sport… like carrom and football,” he says.
Which is why Basha has been a key cog in identifying at-risk children with sporting talent from underprivileged sections, and training them in football.
He helps to get the competitive ones selected to tournaments held by Slum Soccer (a non-profit organisation working to improve livelihoods of street dwelling children through football), which partners with the Homeless World Cup Foundation. If selected to the global tournament, recognition — and a shot at a better future — awaits these youngsters.
This was the case for 22-year-old R Aravind, who represented Chennai and Tamil Nadu at the Homeless World Cup held earlier this year in Cardiff, the UK. “He is a natural talent. He grasped my tips well and showed extraordinary output,” says Basha. After his World Cup exploits, Basha says Aravind won a full scholarship to study an MBA programme at a college in Vyasarpadi. “His parents were over the moon. They struggled to get him through an undergraduate degree but football has helped him sustain his dream of studying further,” he adds.
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In the last eight years that he has been a football coach, Basha has trained over 300 children and young adults. Yet, he was late to pick up the sport.
In school, he was a rugby player. “I studied in the Chennai Corporation school in Kalyanapuram. Rugby had a presence in the 1990s and early 2000s. There was even a local team — Chennai Cheetahs. I used to play for them,” he says.
Life is a game
But with no funds coming into the sport, rugby’s growth in the city was stunted, and when the club shut shop, Basha turned to football.
His father’s death, when he was 16, plunged the family into debt, and Basha had to hang up his boots to teach. “There was no way I could have continued because I couldn’t afford proper nutrition. After every game, I would come back home and only have porridge to eat. All it took was one hard tackle during a game, and I would struggle with my stamina. There was nobody to guide me on how to maintain fitness,” he says.
As a coach, he does not let the same fate befall his wards. “I spend the monthly stipend I receive from Slum Soccer towards their nutrition… like buying eggs because we’re all here for one reason, and that is football,” he says.
Football is also the reason why R Sowmya continues to take her life’s fight head on. Captain of the women’s slum soccer team from Chennai, the 24-year-old’s hardships began as a Class VI student when her father lost everything, including the roof she lived under and called home, in business. She is a caregiver now, taking care of a father who struggles with renal failure.
Sowmya picks up a ball every time she is stressed. “The ball is my friend. It is my biggest support system… no matter whatever stress or pain I’m going through,” she says.
A long journey
Basha came in contact with Sowmya when she was representing her college team in a match, and he was refereeing the game.
Learning of her trials, he helped her obtain a degree in physical education and land a job at the same school he now works with.
But she has a dream — represent the Indian women’s team at the Homeless World Cup next year, and Basha intends to help her realise it.
Training women comes with a handicap because football at the grassroots level in the country has still not warmed up to female coaches. At least, Basha doesn’t know of an instance where a former woman player has mirrored his transition from player to coach.
This means, he is met with resistance from the families of these young women, most of whom are against letting their children travel to different cities to pursue their dream. Basha, however, could not let things be, and so he convinced his wife to join him on his journey. “She travels with me whenever I take the girls for tournaments. Her support has been essential,” he adds.
Does he have dreams of his own? “I want to become a FIFA-licensed referee someday. It is my aim. I have to clear the nationals first but I have until 35 to do that,” he says.
Where does that put his coaching career? “Nowhere,” he says. “It will continue. There are more children who need our help.”