Nepali Times
Pokhara’s young champs

Sushil Bika is 12 years old. He fled from home and scavenged for plastic in Pokhara's garbage dumps to earn enough to buy food.

Today, he is training to be a football star and asked who he wants to be when he grows up, he says without hesitation: "Ronaldo!"

Like the boys of Brazil's favelas who rose up to become national champions and then international football stars, the boys of Pokhara's streets are aiming high. The Sahara Club based here has, for the past five years, been rescuing street children and providing them with a home and education. But six months ago, it decided to start a football academy for former street children and took in 20 boys aged 10-14.

They are from underprivileged families, indigenous groups and dalits. They go through four hours of intensive football training every morning and evening with a professional coach. The rest of the day they attend classes at the Naba Prabhat Secondary School. Many of the boys are not just good in sports but top the class in studies as well. Sahara takes care of their food and hostels with money raised from donors.

"It's amazing how quickly the boys have been transformed," says Basanta Thakali of Sahara, "Till last year they were picking garbage, look at them now." Indeed, they brim with confidence and are proud of how far they have come.

Bikram Basnet, 14, remembers scavenging garbage, selling paper and plastic to recycle, being chased by dogs, by shopkeepers who thought he was a thief and harassed by the police. "It all seems like a dream," Bikram tells us tying his boots. "Now, all I want is to do well in studies and be a great football player some day."

Coach Dambar Gurung is full of praise for his boys. "They are learning very fast," he says during a training session at the stadium under a spectacular backdrop of the Machhapuchhre. "At this rate, they'll all be champions."

Basanta Thakali says Sahara Club's real intention is to rescue street children and give them an opportunity to do well and contribute to society. Football was just an idea and it took off immediately. It's not been easy: it costs Rs 1.6 million a year to take care of the children, pay for their studies, food, lodging and coaching. Luckily, the Aha Gold Cup Tournament earnings have been helpful and the shortfall has been met through donations from Pokhrelis themselves.

"We have taken responsibility of the boys for five years," says Thakali, "and we'll keep on taking new children." Performers Nabin Gurung and Mahesh Gurung have organised charity shows in the UK to raise money for Pokhara's football academy and Thakali hopes money won't be a problem in future.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)