Vikas Meshram is a young leader at Slum Soccer in Nagpur, India. As a self-professed Slum Dog vagabond in the throes of addiction, his life could not have been further from the football field – but at age 15 and his first kick of a football – Vikas life changed forever. This is his story in his own words.
I was born in a poverty-stricken family with uneducated parents and a sibling in a village called Nagpur in India, where we often struggled for two meals a day.
My father spent what earnings he had on his alcohol addiction and I grew up with negative influences; listening to and watching various illegal and immoral activities my peers and seniors indulged in.
With no one to guide me on the right path and no role model to emulate, I was destined to lead a wasted life of a proverbial slum dog, pursuing seedy and shady means to make ends meet.
It wasn’t long before I fell into the wrong sort of company and, at age 13, dropped out of school. I started working odd jobs on construction sites with a gang of troublemakers. Whatever little I would earn during the day I would blow it on gambling, addiction and substance abuse at night.
I was following my father’s footsteps and heading down a dangerous road leading nowhere. Addiction was ruining my future. I had never realized that distance between my family, well-meaning friends and well-wishers of my community had gradually grown unbridgeable.
Remaining in bad company took its toll and one day I found myself in police custody for being on the wrong side of law. I was barely 14 years of age then and I spent the next five months and 18 days of my life there.
Finally, when I was released, I returned home to find myself a stranger no one wanted to be acquainted or identified with.
With no school or friends, life seemed like hell and my future felt like a dark tunnel. I was a mental wreck. Many times, I felt that my prison life was better - at least I had people to talk to and mingle with.
My father re-enrolled me in school. I was taunted, sneered and jeered at which worsened my psychological state and I found myself regularly getting into fights in school.
One day, in anger, I hit a boy on the head with a stick. Blood gushed forth from the wound. I ran home and never went back to school.
After a few days, I started feeling socially isolated as I had no one to share my agony and anxiety with. My family had given up on me. Whenever I went to play, I was sent away.
My social exclusion was complete.
One day, when I was 15 years old, I was loitering aimlessly in a stupor when fortune smiled upon me. I saw a group of children along with their coach playing football. Their whoops of joy were so infectious that I decided to stop and watch the game for a while. It turned out that it was one of Slum Soccer’s Community Centre Programmes.
The coach, finding me standing aloof and not knowing my background, offered to teach me how to play. That was the first time I kicked a football in my life.
I started attending the football sessions regularly. After every few days the coach, along with tips on football, would slip in life lessons regarding importance of hygiene, ill-effects of addiction to tobacco and alcohol, and the importance of education.
I was amazed at how receptive I was to those life lessons and words of advice once they were conveyed to me while playing football.
From being a sport, football became my teacher and guide, an instrument to help me shape a bright future.
By 2017, football had turned into a passion and not a single day passed without practicing, come rain or sunshine.
My hard work paid off when I was selected to represent my district and then my state in the National Inclusion Cup 2018 in Mumbai, India. I was ecstatic because no one from my family and relatives had ever achieved something like this nor ever been to Mumbai.
My performance in the Mumbai tournament got noticed and I was selected to represent my country at the Homeless World Cup 2018 held in Mexico. My joy and pride knew no bounds when I wore the T-shirt with India emblazoned on it. That is when I realized that I was representing something bigger than me.
When I returned from Mexico, I found that my status in my community had changed and people, who had earlier written me off, started treating me with a new found respect.
I was championed in my community as a role model and requested to coach community children.
Soon, I started engaging children in my community, especially attempting to transform those who had strayed from the right path, just like the Slum Soccer coach had done for me.
I returned to formal education and completed the tenth grade in 2018. This gave me the courage and confidence to study further. Thanks to the learning environment of Slum Soccer, I continued my studies and have recently passed my high school exams.
As I get ready to continue my studies, I look back with immense gratitude and awe at how my life has transformed. Had it not been for Slum Soccer and the glorious game of football, I shudder to think what would have happened to me.
Today I not only coach more than 150 children of migrant community in Dipti Signal, Nagpur, but also teach them life skills, mathematics, English, importance of education, health and wellness, gender equality and more, all through the medium of football.
Joining the programme helped me quit the addictions of alcohol and tobacco. The programme has inspired in me the desire to continue learning and training to emerge a better person and build a successful future. I have learned to accept challenges and never give up.
Football has helped me reboot my life and given me a sense of purpose. For me, football is not just a game. It is my saviour, my friend, philosopher, and guide.
The game made me realize that hard work and passion doesn’t go unrewarded. It has given me back my family, friends and self-respect.