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Football is a way of life in Vada Chennai’s Vyasarpadi

Football is a way of life in Vada Chennai's Vyasarpadi
STEDS Academy graduate Bheema is part of the Tamil Nadu women’s team

“What you see here was the lake,” says Raja, pointing at a building that looked distinctly like a school, though I couldn’t find a board to confirm it. He had done what his ‘master’ had asked him to – bring me to the lake the locals had leveled to make a playground.

We were in the middle of a massive ground with no distinct boundaries to suggest what sport it was built for. But I had already heard the story of how the people in the region had got together and converted a purpose-less lake into a football ground, from Raja’s football coach Thangaraj. 

There were men of all ages playing a football match intensely. In fact, ‘Intensely’ doesn’t do justice to what I am seeing. Having worked with football clubs in the past, I had seen a lot of ‘intense’ games and practice sessions. Yes, there was grit and tackles flying around (on a ground that looked unsafe to do it). It certainly didn’t give you the impression of an inconsequential match on a Friday evening.

It was the sense of swagger with which they were doing it that made their game stand apart from regular sessions across the country. These men weren’t just playing. They were, for the lack of a better verb, dancing. Put them amidst a bunch of rappers and beat-boxers, and you wouldn’t find them out of place. Nutmegs, stepovers, flip flaps… You would be forgiven for thinking you were in a ghetto in Brazil.

I was, in fact, in Vyasarpadi, a suburb in North of Chennai. A place, slightly unfairly, known as the crime capital of the city. But I wasn’t there to investigate on that though. I was in Chennai for football.

I had heard a story. How a boy had fought unfavourable conditions to become a top-class footballer. He was on the verge of making it to the Indian national team, after making it the team’s 30-member camp in preparation for the King’s Cup in Thailand. What caught my interest though, was how Nandhakumar Sekhar wasn’t an oddity in Vyasarpadi or in other parts of North Chennai. He was the norm. First, perhaps, to be this close to a senior national team. But the beautiful game was intertwined with the history of the place. And in football, they were seeking a respite from the prejudices that cloud their little neighbourhood.

An Untold Story

“Football has always been here in North Chennai,” says Thangaraj. We were at a small football court, ideal for a five-a-side football match, some 300 metres away from the Vyasarpadi (Mullai Nagar) bus stand. Adjacent to the ‘caged’ ground with the astroturf surface, or at least what remained of it, was a room — the office space for SC-STEDS (Slum Children – Sports Talent Education Development Society).

“It (football) is an integral part of who we are.  Everyone here plays the sport, irrespective of your religion and gender,” he reaffirms. We had been discussing how and why Thangaraj started SC-STEDS with his brother Umapathy and a few friends.

The organisation was founded in 1997 to help the youth in Vyasarpadi overcome the difficult circumstances that often pushed them to the margins at a very early age. North Chennai mostly comprised of low-income labourers who came to the city during the glory days of the Chennai harbour and the B&C Mills. But with the mills shutting down, and the harbour losing its prominence, many were rendered jobless, which resulted in the rampant growth of drug-related abuse and gang wars in the region. Popular culture also played a huge role in promoting this ‘dark’ side of North Chennai neighbourhoods. Films, even as recently as Dhanush starrer Vada Chennai (which literately translates to North Chennai), continue to propagate this rugged, ‘uncivilised’ identity of the region despite significant changes in the situation, including the emergence of community-based development programs such as the SC-STEDS.

“What they don’t tell is how North Chennai is a cultural hotspot. We have amazing singers here. Great dancers. We’ve been producing excellent boxers, carrom board players and footballers for so long now. But nobody wants to talk about all this. All they want to do is talk about gang wars and drugs in the area,” explained Karan Karki, a novelist, and script-writer from the region, when I met him later that day. He represents a generation who have grown tired of the rhetoric and wants to do something about it.

“People from our region gets beaten up by police for stealing a tomato while there are people roaming around freely after looting an entire mountain,” he pointed out.

The Great Divide

Anyone with a moderate knowledge of the city of Chennai will know about the invisible wall that divides the North and South. Geography is a negligible factor in this division of boundaries. It is largely a socio, economic and cultural construct. And there is no better example than sports to understand this separation. 

South Chennai is a hub for cricket. It continues to produce some of the best talents in the country, with schools and colleges promoting the sport. The MRF Pace Foundation is considered the best finishing school for fast bowlers in the country with Australian legend Glenn McGrath working as the director. Apart from cricket, Chennai is also known for being centres for tennis and squash. The sports both sides of Chennai play – the North prefers football, boxing and carrom board – is a fair reflection of the class and caste divide. Cricket, even though it has managed to shatter class boundaries in India, still is an elite sport with a certain investment, while tennis and squash continue to be restricted to the upper class. Football, on the other hand, is a poor person’s sport. All you need is a ball and some space to run.

“To people here, football is a mode of expression. And that is the case with working-class folks across the world. Look at Latin America or Africa for example,” explains Umabathy, co-founder of SC-STEDS. “We wanted to ensure that just like the people of South Chennai, we also get a job or a career out of the things we love. That is why we have the SC-STEDS where we can give proper guidance to the young footballers and help them be successful through the game,” he adds.

The SC-STEDS is just one among the many football academies across North Chennai. Kalyanapuram, Kannigapuram, Perambur, Periampet are all tiny abodes for football in the city. Pulianthope’s Tiger Football Academy run by Chennai Football Association’s Raghu, is yet another example of the game’s strong community connect – people who have benefitted from the sport makes it a point to give it back.

SC-STEDS Coach Thiyagarajan with the Gothia Cup

“The talent has always been here. It’s just that people didn’t know how to speak up for themselves. They will see the prejudices against them and come back here quietly because they don’t know how to communicate,” says Umapathy, whose organisation also runs an English-speaking course in the evening as well as promote ‘scouts and guides’ to ensure the holistic improvement of all his wards. Everything, including the coaching and training kits, is free for the kids of Vyasarpadi at SC-STEDS.

For every Nanadhakumar his academy produces, there are plenty of talented players who miss out, explained Umapathy, who is keen to improve the success ratio. Thiyagarajan, a coach at the club today, was touted to be a star a few years ago, but his lack of communication skills and the need to be employed at a young age prevented him from reaching his destined heights. Dilipan, who played in multiple age groups for India, also had to reduce his time playing football due to the pressure to find a job.

Delhi Dynamos midfielder Nandha Kumar
Delhi Dynamos midfielder Nandha Kumar

It is not to say the SC-STEDS haven’t had success. Nandhakumar now plays for Indian Super League football club Delhi Dynamos. Shaktishree, a former child labourer, is an integral part of Tamil Nadu women’s team. So is Bheemabhai, a school dropout. But the potential to improve is also staggering considering most children don’t even have access to a proper football ground.

Where Are The Footballers?

Football, or for that matter any sport, as a mean for empowering the youth isn’t a new concept in India. Organisations such as Slum Soccer, recipient of the FIFA Diversity award in 2017, YUWA, winner of Laureus Sport of Good Honour award in 2019, are all examples of large-scale NGOs working in the sector. Yet, according to Umapathy, one can’t see a significant contribution to sports from these regions, something he hopes to change.

“I do not want to name any NGO here. And there is no denying the fact that some are doing remarkable work. But some of these big organisations eat away a lot of the CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) money in promoting their own brand. Our ambition is a little different. It’s ok if we SC-STEDs isn’t known. But we want to produce quality sportspersons. We have a shortage of funds, despite registering as an NGO, because we don’t engage in a lot of branding activities,” he says.

Umapathy’s revelation also highlights how most big sports-based NGOs in the country continue to be an extension of a ‘saviour syndrome’ – people from outside the community swooping in to help the poor. The relative success of SC-STEDS and similar community-driven programs across the country should act as an eye-opener for the need to change how these organisations should be run. 

Marking Tamil Nadu on the Football Map

Tamil Nadu is a state that has gone years without being given credit for its contributions to Indian football. Simon Sundararaj, India’s last goal scorer in the Olympics hails from the small, temple town of Thanjavur while more recently, the likes of Sabir Pasha, Raman Vijayan and Kalia Koluthungan had impressed at the highest stages.

But a recent turn of things, starting with Chennaiyin FC’s dominance in the Indian Super League, state women team’s success in multiple age categories at the National Championships, Sethu FC’s winning run in the Indian Women’s League and Chennai City FC’s dominance in the I-League have well and truly announced Tamil Nadu as a football powerhouse.

Switzerland’s FC Basel have already announced a multi-million deal with the I-League champions that will see both the clubs identify and nurture talent in the region. And despite the internal tussle over which league should get the top division status, times are changing for the country’s footballers with more avenues opening up. But while elite sports run away with the glitz, glamour and the bulk of the revenue, it is initiatives like the SC-STEDS that sustain the love for the beautiful game. 

Here is the documentary:

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Indian Football: All Things Considered
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