Current India star Sunil Chhetri could soon be joined by 14-year-old Raja Chinnaswamy
Fourteen-year-old Raja Chinnaswamy's childhood has been tough to say the least but, after being coached at an Indian orphanage, the youngster's talent means he may soon become his country's first footballing megastar.
From The Observer:
Rounding the last defender, Raja Chinnaswamy looks up towards the iron frame of the goal in the lee of the white-washed wall of the orphanage behind. He pulls back his right foot and lets fly, sending the ball hurtling past the goalkeeper and out through the gaping hole in the torn netting.
Eight years ago, when he first arrived at the orphanage in the southern Indian state of Kerala, Raja had never seen a football. Today he is a rising star of Indian football, a 14-year-old already being talked about by his excited coaches as a future fixture in the national team.
Indian football's moment may be coming. Last year the country qualified for the finals of the Asian Cup for the first time since 1984. English Premiership clubs have also woken up to the fact that the subcontinent might have something to offer the world of football.
Clubs such as Manchester United and Chelsea are moving into India, hoping to unearth the same wealth of talent that Africa has offered up, and to cash in on a vast untapped market of one billion people.
Yet the Indian national football team still languishes at 143 in the Fifa rankings, below the South Pacific island of Vanuatu, the Cape Verde Islands and Swaziland. Indian football desperately needs a hero, its own David Beckham or Cristiano Ronaldo. In Raja, it may finally have found one.
In a country which remains obsessed with cricket, the fact that a teenage boy wants to play football might be considered unusual enough.
But the story of Raja is so extraordinary that it would not be out of place in a Bollywood movie.Born in Tamil Nadu in 1994, he was four when his mother was poisoned by her family for marrying below her caste. A couple of years later his father fell ill and lost his job at a sugar cane factory.
Hoping their luck would change, the boy and his father headed for the town of Thrissur in Kerala, but quickly found themselves penniless and on the streets. With his father too ill to work, Raja turned to begging. "I never thought about it," he said. "It was the only thing to do. Sometimes people would give me money and sometimes they would slap me."
Begging on the streets
If he was lucky, he would make 100 rupees a day, but Raja was anything but lucky. Some of the other street children spotted him begging at the station. They told the gullible six-year-old they could get him a job and one for his father.
Instead they took him to meet the boss of the local begging mafia, a man also called Chinnaswamy, behind a row of shops. The man threatened him and warned him against trying to escape.
"He said I had to give him 100 rupees a day or he would kill my father," Raja said. If he tried to escape, he was told, the other children would inform on him. One day Raja failed to hit his target. His father was sick with a fever and the boy needed to care for him.
"In the evening I went begging and went to see Chinnaswamy to give him the 50 rupees I had made. He tied me to a stove and hit me with an iron rod," he said. Chinnaswamy had gathered the other children round to watch, to make sure that they learned the lesson.
The rod was heated on the stove until it was red hot. Raja rolls down his sock to show the scars. There is another scar to the left of one eye from where he was burned with a cigarette.
If anyone needed a break, it was Raja. Finally he got one. A friendly bookseller found him sobbing in the street and took pity on him. He knew of an orphanage where the boy would be safe. It was Raja's good fortune that the Janaseva Boys' Home in Madhurappuram was run by a former international athlete, Jose Maveli, whose passion for sport had not diminished at the same rate as his physical abilities.
Maveli offered the 100 or so boys who lived there a chance of an education, but, more importantly for Raja, sports training. It was not long before his natural footballing talents were spotted by a couple of former Indian footballing internationals roped in by Maveli to lend a hand with the coaching.
"He is a very speedy player with the ball and a very good goal-getter," said Soly Xavier, who played right back for the national side from 1986 to 1989. "He thinks about positioning and is always watching the other players. Whenever he gets an opportunity, he scores a goal. Within a year and a half he will be in the national side."
Last September, Raja was selected for the state football team: "I was happy and crying. Many of the players were crying because they had not been selected, but I was crying because I had."
Now trials for the Indian national side are beckoning. Neither Raja nor his coaches doubt that he will make it. "I will definitely play for India. I can do it," he says. And he trots off towards the centre circle of the red dirt pitch carved out of a scrap of land surrounded by palm trees in one of the most beautiful parts of a country that does not yet care about football - but may soon have something to cheer about.
From The Observer