Our Messi | #2

In a city like Dehradun, which has a very concentrated city center with a very expansive rural community, it’s almost impossible not to meet villagers and students when working at Ankuri. You take a walk down the road and you’ll meet people who are connected in Ankuri in some form or another — be they participants in the knitting program, parents of children in schools partnered with Ankuri, or even children from the schools we teach at. I wanted to take this blog post to share a journal I wrote about my experiences playing football with kids from the village — some of which attend schools like Galaxy and Intercollege where we are installed to teach English. I hope you find this lengthy journal as interesting as I found football to be. Thanks for reading!

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We’ve been playing football with some children in a village near Thikana since I arrived more than a week ago. I’m sure these pages and anyone eventually reading along could assume what I mean by “football” but just to soothe my American sensibilities, I’d like to clarify. By “football”, I mean soccer, not the football accompanied by the Super Bowl in the States. Although I am equally abhorrent at both, I have a little more experience with soccer so it has been awarded the foot-centered moniker in my book.

After our respective duties at schools, the Literacy Center at Thikana, the gardens, and wherever I am behind a lens are through for the day, the other interns and I pile into Ankuri’s vehicles and head towards the field, barreling down the first roads around our homestay. I’ve noticed there are about four or five separate routes to the field yet somehow the drivers always make it there. I commend them for that.

The field and the infrastructural context it is situated in frankly deserves description but I would like to differentiate between this field and a typical football field. For this, I used the term “field” very loosely. From where the cars drop us off, we walk down a gentle cement hill. Houses line both sides of the road and are built to match this incline. Families with children and dogs finally cool after a long day panting in the northern Indian sun rest on the flat roofs. Large satellite dishes are mounted next to them. They look forward to watch the sun eventually dip behind the mountains in the distance but rear their heads to watch us pass by. Our majority white group of interns draws stares everywhere we travel around Dehradun. Initially it put me on edge to have so many pairs of eyes glued to your every move but as I pondered it more, the attention makes sense given the landscape we’re guests in. In Dehradun, pale complexion is an oddity, a rarity with the same odds as bring struck by lightning twice or winning the $50,000 jackpot off a $1 scratcher. Once you recognize this population’s ratio of white to non-white drastically favoring the latter, the constant attention fades into routine.

As we walk down the hill, we come across a raggedy badminton net on dirt court. Children gather next to the net, some with rackets and some without, watching the current four on the court battle it out for supremacy over the birdie, streaming through the air gracefully just as its namesake would. The woosh of the racket is one of the most powerful and rich sounds around. The wind, attempting to navigate itself through the crocheted squares of the racket’s strings, crowds together at the quick motion of a serve. Unable to make it through seamlessly, the win lets out a satisfying sigh of exasperation and readies itself to try again when the birdie soars over the net on the next volley.

Passing by the net without interfering with the current spectacle, we wind down a path shrouded in plants and flowers. Rocks are accidentally dislodged from their notches and we watch them tumble ahead, eventually coming to a stop only to inevitably lurch forward again at the next brush of a shoe. Once we emerge from the wooded path, the sky has already begun its metamorphoses into the orange and purple sunset performance. I stop to bask in the hues, which reflect off my glasses and back into the world around me — an inadvertent gift. Finally, we see the children at the football field. To return to my earlier comment on the field’s lack of a fitting title, the badminton and football playing fields share one glaring quality — dirt instead of grass. Small pebbles and larger stones litter the field the cause the football to bounce and jump in unexpected ways. While that might confuse the football player with smooth, expansive fields of bright green turf to practice on, these players are accustomed to the challenge and adapt accordingly, quickly jetting left and right to keep up.

In all of the games I’ve played in and watched with a smaller group of children on the sidelines, one disheartening thought has clouded my mind and I cannot seem to shake it. Although, in my younger years, I chose to participate in summer theater production instead of joining my friend’s football team, inevitably coached by his father, the option was always available to me. In high school, the really dedicated players who made it past little league games would wear their sport jackets with their travel football team’s logo on the breast, marking them as both incredibly gifted at the sport and wealthy enough to pay for coaches, equipment, airfare for national and sometimes international tournaments, and more expenses. These children have not had the same privileges. They were not born into a family that can afford to truly nurture their talent the way some families in the States do. And I use the word “talent” very deliberately. At the ages of nine or ten, these kids are light years beyond some football players their age I’ve seen back home, all the while playing in flip-flops that fly off their feet after some powerful shots on goal.

This one field is filled to the brim with untapped talent. I chalk at least part of their skill up to their dedication to the game. When I was first told we were going to play football with some kids from the schools Ankuri interns teach at, I assumed someone had organized the game with the students for a specific time and if we couldn’t come for whatever reason, the game would be postponed. Soon after I was informed we are not an instrumental piece to the game but rather more players to a reoccurring event. They play every night at the same time. The same kids show up and cycle in and out of play like a ballet with a rotating ensemble and we are just thrown in as cast members. Without us, the show still goes on. The game doesn’t depend on us. It depends on the ball and the ball is their world, constantly spinning and rotating like clockwork.

I know very little about professional football, even with the World Cup currently underway. However, I know some of the big names. Ronaldo. Neymar. Messi. All three players are represented on this field in Dehradun, some even more than once on the back of jerseys. While standing on the side with my camera raised to my eye, the name Messi shines on the back of a boy’s jersey. Another boy notices my camera’s aim and runs to our Messi. He emphatically shakes the boy’s hand, yelling “Oh my God! It’s Messi! It’s Messi!”. Our Messi turns around and his smile is beaming. He points to his name with his thumbs and speeds back into the fray. Without the necessary resources and support this child’s real name will most likely never grace the back of a real World Cup jersey, but for now he’s our Messi and he’ll play with the passion and determination of his idol until the world pays attention.

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