Silver Lining: Football for Education

As Rafique Ansari blows the whistle and asks the children to fall into teams for a match, it is hard to believe that this 42 year old was anything but a football coach before in his life. Rafique founded the Rahee Foundation in 2009 with the desire to use football as a tool to motivate children to study. Thanks to Rahee, 500 children in the area of Malvani in Malad West receive free football coaching. Rahee conducts 35 sessions for each child every year and make sure their young footballers show equal enthusiasm for schoolwork as well.

Before initiating Rahee, Rafique took up several odd jobs right from his teenage years. Hailing from a family of limited means and not having a flourishing education, Rafique worked in a slipper factory, a watch repair shop, a chemical factory and even as a ladies’ tailor. However, Rafique felt cloistered in these roles and desired to do something more than just make a living.

“I felt I wasn’t doing anything for the nation so I did courses in defence. But I couldn’t make it into civil defence owing to a lot of bribery,” says Rafique. Shifting gears from the macro to the local, Rafique saw that he could do something in the community that he was brought up in as well. “Many of my friends had become addicts to smoking or alcohol and kept begging for a rupee or two. Their lives were over. You can enjoy life best only when you live well,” says Rafique. Looking into his own life and seeing the lack of a thorough education, Rafique decided to use his interest in sports for this purpose. “My biggest problem was that I couldn’t get a professional life since I didn’t have proper education,” says Rafique.

Rahee started with Rafique teaching 4 children who came on a daily basis. Slowly, word got around that there was a free football class and more children started turning up. Each child got hold of a friend and soon Rafique was training the older boys to become football trainers at Rahee. “With little drops, we made a mighty ocean,” says Rafique.

His nephew Anwar Ansari, a high school student, is one of the 5 employees at Rahee. He trains the children at Rahee and feels that football has made him less short tempered and increased his stamina as well. “The youngsters here know that if you fall into addictions, it will lower your stamina and affect your performance in the game,” says Anwar. Despite attending college, Anwar coaches the children twice a week with the hope that, “We want to change the impression of Malvani that people have and make it look like Bandra someday. That will happen only if people there have high education.”

The same goal exists for the older football coach. “Autorickshaws do not come into the area as they are afraid of being ripped of their money. Many small children here are prone to addictions even,” says Rafique. At Rahee, along with football, this vulnerable group of children between 7 to 18 years of age from underprivileged backgrounds receive the right kind of motivation. Rahee supports the children’s education financially or with resources.  Once the child falls in love with the game, it is important that the child keeps up the good grades at school to continue at Rahee. “If they fail in their studies, we tell them they can’t continue next year at Rahee. Of course, it is just a threat,” chuckles Rafique. Looking at the number of girls playing football, Rafique says, “Education is especially important for these girls who are forced to stay away from school and do household chores.”

The Rahee Foundation has its own district level football team as well that belongs to the Mumbai Football Association. They have won a substantial number of matches at the district level and some of the better young players are given avenues to join football clubs in the city and participate in state level matches. In return, Rafique says he gets lots of help with his English as the children, who are better schooled than him, help him out with his communication.

Blending football and education was not without its challenges for Rafique. Local boys who were part of Rahee brought their gang wars along with them. Rafique also had to face criticism and hostility from a gang of boys who wished him to prove his Muslim identity by not mingling with other religious groups.

“After the 1992 riots, I lost a lot of my friends. These gangs didn’t like Rahee as my opinions did not match theirs. I want Rahee to be a way of bringing about unity among everyone and not have communal tensions in society,” says Rafique. Over time, Rahee spotted talent even among these gangs and helped the boys to channel their energies by participating in football clubs.

Rafique trains his children at Fr. Justin D’Souza Ground in Orlem on Sunday mornings. Like every true Indian, his first love is cricket but still chose to teach football. In football, he found that every player has a purpose and there is more teamwork that is required. He finds cricket to be more individualistic. As the young footballers scamper around the field enthusiastically, Rafique says, “They are far better than me at their age. I know they will grow up to be real heroes.”

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