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Best foot forward

For the children of a Delhi basti, Sylvester Peter is their football coach, counsellor, mentor — and the man who saved them from the seedy life of the slum. KumKum Dasgupta reports.

delhi Updated: Jun 03, 2012 20:30 IST
KumKum Dasgupta

Past a flat bed of municipal waste and clogged drains is Indira Vikas Camp No 4 at Vikaspuri in west Delhi. Recently, this bustling basti - home to 600 migrant families from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh - had an unexpected guest: Xevi Marce, director of FC Barcelona's youth club, the feeder school to the football club's youth academy.

His destination: My Angel's Academy - freelance holistic trainer, motivational speaker and counsellor Sylvester Peter's labour of love and passion.

Marce spent a couple of hours with Sylvester, 38, and his pack of young footballers, at the Academy's Camp Nou, a fenced-off area inside a Delhi Development Authority (DDA) park, testing their technique, stamina and attitude. He went back impressed with Sylvester's coaching and his wards' skills.

However, Sylvester's Academy is not just a local football club. Its importance and impact on the lives of the slum's children and young adults is much deeper and wider.

Thanks to Sylvester, who is lovingly called bhaiyya by the slum's residents, many of the young have not been sucked into drug peddling, anti-social activities, rag picking or politics.

He fulfills an important role that is often missing in the lives of underprivileged children, that of a guide, counsellor.

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"We are busy throughout the day working. How can we ever keep an eye on our children? Bhaiyya is their father and mother," said Jaitunissa, 48, a mother of 10.

But the reformation of the children did not start with football, but with changing attitudes and inculcating important life skills in them. Take for example, hygiene.

No one is allowed to enter the premises of the Academy without a proper scrub bath. Using abusive language, even while playing football, is a strict no-no.

To reach the Academy, a 10 feet x 10 feet room, one has to take the 'main road' of the congested slum: a thin, semi-concrete strip that runs through the narrow, dark lanes, past rough-and-ready homes, a tailor shop and a grocery store.

Its uneven walls are covered with photos of European footballers, newspaper clippings and drawings done by the children. In one corner is a desktop computer that Sylvester recently got for the children.

The Academy ("It's not an NGO", insisted Sylvester repeatedly) springs to life after the children come back from school. They go to the Academy with their homework. Senior students help juniors; Sylvester is also around for guidance, a quick chat or some advice.

"My daughter wanted to leave school when she was in Class 6. But Bhaiyya convinced her not to," said Radha Devi, mother of 13-year-old Pooja, who aspires to be a designer.

The children are passionate about football and despite the odds, they have been excelling in it. After Marce went back to Spain, three Barcelona FC coaches came to India for conducting paid coaching camps (Rs 12,600 for 15 hours of coaching), three of young footballers from the slum - Kishan (11), Tanjeer (15) and Shakeel (16) - were chosen to attend it for free.

"Even though they did not have fancy boots, they held their ground thanks to their discipline, commitment and skills," recounted Neel Shah, director, Liberio Sports India, a sports management firm. It was Shah who took Marce to the Academy.

Sylvester's journey with the children started when he was in school. But it was in college that he decided to do this fulltime.

The journey has not been easy; there was initial opposition from his family; threats from political leaders and the police. One of the toughest challenges came when well-to-do families of the area tried to stop the children from practising at the park. But Squadron leader RK Tewari, who is in charge of the facility, would have none of it.

"Sylvester's children are a motivated bunch and they keep the park clean. He is doing good work without any personal gains," he said.

Every morning at 4 am, the young footballers, which includes four girls, practices at the park.

Lack of funds has been another recurrent problem and the reason why Sylvester has not been able to take in more children, even though he would love to. He runs the Academy with his own money and "generous help" from a few friends.

Most of it is spent on football kits, books, jerseys and health supplements for the children. At present, he looks after 80 children (3-20 year-olds) of the slum.

"Whatever I say will be less about Sylvester. He is a genuine young man," said Anjali Agarwal, principal of St Marks School, who gave the school auditorium for the Academy's annual day function and also sponsored the football team's stay and food during their recent visit to Chennai to play in a tournament.

Sylvester's work is also not restricted to any one community in the slum.

"There are many Muslim families in the slum but Bhaiyya makes no distinction, he comes to our homes and even eats with us. Not many, even in the slum, do so," said Afsana, a class 9 student.

Unfortunately, his round-the-clock engagement with the children has taken a toll: his marriage broke up because of his work. But Sylvester refuses to say that he has sacrificed anything.

"Sacrifice is a sad word. I am doing this because I love it," he said with a warm smile.