Don Bosco, a Catholic priest from Italy, was greatly influenced by a visit to a juvenile prison 'Generala' that left an indelible mark on him as a youngster. Bosco had written - “This visit brought immense tears to my eyes and left an emotional scar that never healed”.
Remarkably, an oratory started in his name in Mumbai's Matunga area, has given hope and happiness to slum children through the gift of football.
The Don Bosco Oratory in Matunga was started less than two years ago. Salesian priest Fr.Glenford Lowe has played an important part in putting together a football team that consisted of kids from the street.
So, what is this Oratory all about? In their own words, it is a platform where young people, especially from economically deprived environments, can find space and resources to develop their skills and talents in sports, music, dance, art and leadership, spoken English and computers.The Don Bosco football team did not conduct selection trials for children. Instead, they welcomed kids from economically backward families.
"Unlike other clubs in Mumbai who have a series of ‘trial camps’ to select players for their teams, we at Don Bosco have no such selection camps. The only criteria for joining the Don Bosco Oratory is that the youngster must be from an economically backward environment and in a fragile situation. They fill in a registration form with a commitment to abide by our simple rules," Lowe told Goal.
"From here we groom grassroots talent. Our catchword is ‘from streets to stadium’. At the moment we have a senior cricket team, a junior girls hockey team and in football, we have five teams in the U12, U14, U16, U18 and a senior team."
The team depends on donations from their alumni, friends and the Salesians of Don Bosco. Although they do not have professional coaches at the moment, the players get football kits and food every day after training.
Lowe explained, "Unlike other clubs, who have professional coaches, we believe that our own boys are capable of leading by learning themselves. There is a great family bond between them and the young players. We, the Salesians of Don Bosco, are more like mentors in their lives."
These talented kids took part in the third division of the Mumbai District Football Association in the 2019-20 season and as a debutant, their performance was remarkable. They were disqualified before they could go all the way and clinch the trophy.
"Our Oratory was just a year old when we decided to launch our Oratory club officially. We were not too sure of the dynamics within the MDFA. The registration process was indeed a long drawn out process with most of our players with proper documents. The MDFA officials were very helpful in guiding us all through.
"Our Oratory team blended together in a very short span. They developed skills, improved their technique and stamina and played their hearts out. The very first match in the 3rd Division MDFA was a stunner to all teams. We won 9-0. We were already champions in the making. We reached the quarter-finals and won. We were just two games away from being crowned ‘champions’, but unfortunately, we were disqualified because of the incomplete Central Registration System (CRS) regulations," Lowe said.
That didn't stop the Salesians. They were a motivated bunch. "When our senior Oratory players reached the quarter-finals of the 3rd Division Mumbai District Football Association (MDFA), we placed our hopes in a junior team – the U16 Super Division ‘Yuva Presidential League’ (YPL). Coached by our very own, Mr Manish Rathod, we began to nurture the young team. Right from the word go, they began to create a niche for themselves in the sporting arena of Mumbai."
Slums to stadiums became a reality. The U-16 team won all their matches in the league stage, scoring 21 goals and conceding none. They reached the final and the dream of playing at the Cooperage Stadium, in their very first attempt, became a reality on February 23, 2020.
They lost to Kenkre FC in the final but won the hearts of the spectators after what was a tight contest. In the YPL award night that followed, three players from the Oratory team were nominated and Aditya Gopireddy won the award for the best midfielder.
"Our joy had no bounds when Aditya was awarded for being the best in his category. Trophies were presented to all the nominees too. The fans erupted when the compere emphatically affirmed, “In the U16 Super Division Category, welcome on stage Don Bosco Oratory who played ever-so-well, what a wonderful performance!” A huge trophy and medals were presented to all our players. A cherished moment that was cleansed with tears of joy," Lowe fondly recalled.
In what has been a brilliant first season for the Oratory, the senior team reach the quarter-finals of the MDFA third Division and was promoted to the Second Division, their U18s won the Juhu Hamara Trophy 2020 and the U16s became runners-up in the YPL Super Division. Surely, this is just the beginning.
"We are just two years old. Much has happened in the lives of our youngsters at Don Bosco Oratory. We are truly a family: we celebrate the birthdays of all the players, we visit their homes and reach out to them when they are sick in the hospital. We keep in touch through various social media platforms, we have initiated a daily ‘nutrition program’, opened opportunity to learn computer and spoken English, we plan to set up a library and an indoor games hall too. We assist those who wish to join the night college, generate funds for the education of the players and offer opportunities for leadership, public speaking and socio-eco responsibility.
"Our real focus is to prepare our youth to be responsible citizens, to be creators of a just society and to be lovers of the divine and humanity. Sports is a means and an opportunity for a bright future.
"This year we hope to have four teams playing in the various MDFA leagues. We had begun serious practices in view of the 2020-21 season, but unfortunately, with the COVID-19 pandemic, all our ventures have temporarily been suspended. In five year’s time, we hope to have our own Don Bosco Sports Academy that would promote football, hockey, cricket among the young dreamers from the slums of Mumbai."As the current world scenario teaches us, “Remember, Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies." These children already know that.