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Argentina, Brazil team up for Kashmiri youth

Priscila Barros Pedroso proudly smiles sitting with her shinning students Musadiq Mehraj and Mir Abdul Hanan. – Courtesy International Sports Academy Trust (ISAT).

By Shahnawaz Khan in Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir for Silent Heroes, Invisible Bridges

Over the last four years, Argentine national Juan Marcos Troia and his Brazilain wife Priscila Barros Pedroso have made Kashmir their home, despite hardships. The couple lives with their three daughters in a Srinagar who speak go to a local school and speak Urdu and Kashmiri, besides Spanish and Portuguese in pure Latin American accent. By their looks, they just pass off as any other Kashmiri.

However, the small Latin American home in the midst of Kashmiri locality is often buzzing with activity. Local youngsters visit in groups to learn teaches the nuances of football from Marcos. Pedroso cooks Brazilian food for the guests.
Both Pedroso and his wife are trained football coaches.

“Ours is a marriage of enemies,” remarks Pedroso playfully, referring to the football rivalry of Argentina and Brazil. Thousands of miles from their home, the couple runs a football academy in Indian side of Kashmir, whose population awaits UN Security Council plebiscite since 1948.

The International Sports Academy Trust (ISAT), set up by the couple in 2003, started off from coaching programs in India’s capital city New Delhi with the help of Brazilian sponsor, Sports Network. However, Troia didn’t find much love for the game in the metropolis.

In 2007, it started its programs in Kashmir in association with Jammu and Kashmir Football Association where he has trained over 1,000 boys. Logistics and grounds are provided by the football association, while Troia provides training free of cost.

“In Delhi, I had been training Iranian and Afghan refugees, who are better suited for the game. Then, I discovered Kashmiris who are more like them (Central Asians). The weather, food, almost everything, is suited for football,” says Marcos, explaining his preference to shift to Kashmir.

Football has been a popular game in Kashmir, but the rising popularity of cricket, two decades of conflict, and the shrinking open spaces have sidelined it especially among the new generation.
A trained coach from a football-crazy nation was perhaps all that was needed to infuse a fresh spirit in the game and take it to new levels. Soon Troia saw boys thronging his coaching sessions, and pleading for admissions in his academy.

He enrolled some 400 boys the first year, refusing entry to even greater number of requests.
“Yes, I get so many request, so many applications, and I just can’t take them all. But I have been trying to give my best, and expand the network as much as possible,” says Marcos.

Besides training hundreds of boys in multiple classes in a day, he has set up three football clubs of 20 boys each.
In 2009, he launched an exchange program, sending two Kashmiri boys to Brazil to play in professional clubs there for a year there. Four boys also came from Brazil to play with the ISAT clubs in Kashmir.

Musadiq Mehraj, one of the two who spent a year in Brazil, was 14 when he joined the academy. The 2006 world cup inspired him to play football. He was amongst the first few who learnt the trick from Marcos.
“I just used to kick around. I thought I was playing football, but today I feel I was just kicking the ball without knowing the game. It was Troia who taught us the basics,” said Musadiq.

After a year in the Brazil, Musadiq says he has not just got a better hold on the game, but is a changed man now.
“I was so short tempered earlier, but not now,” he said.

For 10 months before their trip, Pedroso taught Musadiq and Abdul Hannan Spanish language and Latin American culture. She also accompanied them to Brazil while her family hosted the boys there.
“Marcos, Priscilla, and the kids, they are like my family,” says Musadiq.

In a place as small as Kashmir, Troia has remained in news, right from the time he arrived. In the first few months after his arrival he was roughed up paramilitary troops in a Srinagar street, taking him for just another Kashmiri man. Two years later New Delhi asked him to leave. It was only after Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah intervened that he was allowed to stay.

Marcos’ exchange program also ran into a major trouble when the boy, first selected for a trip to Spain was declined a passport. Basharat Baba’s father was a former militant or freedom fighter.
The media attention to the issue again led to the intervention of chief minister, who promised to passport for Basharat.

Ironically, Basharat had missed the opportunity but got the passport. Troia had to cancel the Spain exchange programme after Madrid declined visa to the Kashmiri boys.

Inspired by the story, Indian filmmaker Ashvin Kumar made a documentary that tells the story of Kashmir through the lives of Troia , Basharat who faced passport troubles, and his father. The documentary, ‘Inshallah football’ faced problems with the Indian censor board, but has been critically acclaimed in screenings abroad.
Troia still wants to arrange a trip for Basharat.

“I am still trying, but now it is kind of a personal issue. He is my best player but he is already 20 now,” explaining that Latin American academies and clubs start taking boys as young as 7.

This year, however, has been the most difficult for Marcos. He almost left, after he found his two dogs dead, and received a threatening phone call. Police later traced the call to a prank caller. Troia doesn’t like to talk on the episodes now.
“[...] there are people, who feel threatened and insecure by our work here,” Pedroso says, without naming anyone.

She plans to open an institute to teach Latin American languages and culture. And despite difficulties, she wants to stay.

“We can stay as long as we are allowed to, but if you ask me if I want to leave, I would say No.” said Pedroso who has recently joined a local school as a teacher.

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The soccer immigrants: Juan Marcos Troia and his Brazilian wife Priscila Barros Pedroso, all speak fluent Urdu, Kashmiri, Spanish and Portuguese. – Photo by Shahnawaz Khan
Argentine national Juan Marcos Troia leads Kashmiri youth in football ground despite conditions of India-administered Jammu and Kashmir. – Photo by Shahnawaz Khan
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