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Passion, teamwork and transformation: Football in North Madras

Story of the beautiful sport and how it has transformed the lives of the kids living in the "Vada" Chennai.

Passion, teamwork and transformation: Football in North Madras

Sukumaar Thangaraj

Published: 13 March 2020 6:36 AM GMT

"At 17, I already had responsibility because I took care of my family, but in football I was young; I wasn’t experienced or the captain – I was just in the team" ~ Pele

Words of Brazilian football icon Pele were written in a broken compound wall. These words tell how the legendary footballer overcame from his poverty and pain. Like him many kids are growing up in the streets of North Chennai with higher dreams and ambition.

Mini Brazil

Football- the most popular and revolutionary sport in the world, is a beautiful game of passion, devotion, joy, hope, and transformation.

In a country like India, where Cricket is dominating the sports arena, football and other sports are very rare to see in the streets. But few places are exceptions; football is one of the major and dominating sport activities in the slums of Chennai. Especially in northern part of the city (Vayasapadi, Kasimedu, Royapuram, Washermenpet, Perambur). People are crazy about Football that it’s not just a game to play but believe it is their life changing tool.

From children to adults, their favorite game here is football. One can find kids playing in each and every corner of the streets throughout the day. Their houses are filled with the medals and trophies occupying their living space. So many players from here have played for state, national and international tournaments. So, for them football is everything!

Football is one of the major and dominating sport activities in the slums of Chennai. One can find kids playing in each and every corner of the streets throughout the day. (Image: Sukumar)

FIFA world cup and International cup to them is a festival, they used to sit together in front the giant screen and enjoy the game. Especially during the FIFA World Cup the entire area is lit up like a carnival where each group hang banners for their favorite players and the team they support. We could find many ‘human encyclopedia of football’ those up to date about the game stats. They never use notes or gadgets to save the information but minds.

Vayasarpadi is one of the main area for football development in the city, they come up with many ideas to develop the game, they bring more people into the game and they also spread the game to the nearby places. They organize small tournaments among the neighbourhood communities. In the past with in the area, and nearby places had big conflicts for many reasons, but those kind of small friendly tournaments created a comradeship among them changed that into a healthy rivalry groups. Thilak Kumar, 14 an enthusiastic young player said “We can also find a number of local versions of Neymar, Messi, Ronaldo, Willian and Drogba in every street, that’s why Vyasarpadi has another name, the Mini Brazil. Though Neymar was my favorite player, but I always used to follow my elder brothers in my club”. In many cases, as they have grown up with the elders, they also take the senior players as a role model for their game as well their life.

Football as a sight of empowerment

Latin American countries like Brazil and Argentina are poor states for so many years which let them indulge in several underworld activities but football has given them an identity in the global platform. In the present times, they are frontier nations with respect to the game. The game not just giving the people an identity but it helps them divert into sports to elevate their livelihood to dignified standards.

Yes, football has a magic power to unite people and transform their lives, it’s quite an unique sport. Player must be fit physically and mentally, needs more stamina, determination, hard work, dedication, team spirit and more importantly have to fight till the last second of the game. It brings them power and gives them confidence to survive. People in slums always strive towards battle to survive and are determinate towards their goal. That’s why football’s magic work in the slum community around the globe.

People here in north madras believe that football has the potential to change society. A torn ball can, and must make people joyful, responsible, participatory, democratic, transparent and dynamic - keeping these values of playground parallel to life. The power of the game helps to transform society better with hundreds of local coaches and grassroots organizations around the area using football to change young lives.

football’s magic work in the slum community around the globe. (Image: Sukumar)

These coaches and local trainees offer young kids from economically backward backgrounds the opportunity not only to play football, but also overcome the social challenges that pull them behind. By teaching them issues such as social integration, gender equality and unemployment into their football practice time.

Coaches and volunteers working in the field of football for good enable well over a thousands of young people each year to build better futures for themselves and their communities. This is the perfect example of how football changes their social life.

Here each and every one has different stories about football, how its helps them. One among them is Thangaraj Master. In 1997 himself and brother Umapathi started the football training center called the Slum Children’s Sports Talent, Education & Development Society (SC -STEDS) a slum football association and training academy for slum children around Vyasarpadi and its surrounding area. Moreover Tamil Nadu’s first artificial grass built ground was created here by Chennai Corporation (But it is irony that government itself is not taking part in its functions), It’s made possible only because of this gentlemen hard work and view towards the children as well as the game. More than 17 slums’ children are taking part in SC-STEDS academy.

A famous academy cum coaching center in Chennai is located in the Mullai Nagar of Vyasarpadi. More than 200 kids are taking training in a small ground along with 50 girls who are also a part of this academy, practicing in a shift manner (morning 2 session, evening 5 session), because of this space constraints. Interestingly parents are giving more interest than children. Because they believe the game will give better life for them.

In 2010, a 11 member football team from India took part in the U18 Youth World Cup in Sweden who is none other than children from SC-STEDS academy. They lost at league stage of the tournament winning one of the league matches against the former league champion and host, Sweden, the only match India won in that tournament. The coaching staffs of India took Thangaraj coach along with them to assist the children.

SC-STEDS also produced national players like Dhillipan, Dhanapal Ganesh (trained for a particular time), Bheemabhai, Mathumitha and more number of players who represented state, university, College, and school level tournaments.

In the recent time Nandha Kumar is selected to Indian Nation football team. (The team’s 30-member camp in preparation for the King’s Cup in Thailand.). He Played in ISL (Indian Super League) and represented Delhi Dynamos (2018-2019) and Odisha FC (2019-2020). Players who played for many I-league & ISL teams. Few kids are take part in Chennaiyin FC Grass Root Training. At the age of 16, a young boy Uma Shankar is signed by Ozone FC Bengaluru based in I-league 2nd division team. Kids from here representing many clubs (various division) till date. This people fought in unfavorable conditions to become a top-class footballer.

From childhood we used to play football, in the street but that gave no exposure to us. We used it to pass time but it was only later we realised it’s a life changing activity, it’s a reflection of what we missed in our childhood and that’s why we started this academy to produce more good players said Thangaraj, a trainer of SC-STEDS. He also added that they were able to observe more professionalism in these young kids.

Kannikapuram, is another important area for the development of slum soccer in the city. It involves more than 200 kids every year into the game. Their players are signed and playing in many Football Clubs in the city as well as the state clubs. City’s biggest corporation ground also encourages more football lovers to play the game thus making more number of kids involved in football every year.

Krishnan 47, Srinivasan, 46 and few others started the Kannikapuram Football Club (KFC) for children and Kannikapuram Veteran Football Club (KVFC) for people above 40. The involvement of these gentlemen in sports is outstanding. They spend more time in the ground rather than in their home.

“Sports includes all forms of physical activity that contribute to physical fitness, mental well-being and social interaction among kids, our late friend Anand (Coach of Kannikapuram Football kids) always used to say this to us. In his memory we are still working with these kids and making them stronger” said Srinivasan.

“Football changed my son’s behavior and he quit smoking” said Meenakshi, mother of Pradeep who is a part of this club for the past 4 years. She also thanks Anand coach and his efforts for the dramatic changes in the area.

For the past 10 years they are organising the summer special football camp for children of the neighbouring areas. The 20 days camp is organized from their own pocket money. It is to be noted that even common public who are regulars to the ground contribute for the camp fund because to them sports will show more light in life to get out of the gutters.

“Messi and Ronaldo are the two iconic stars popular among us. So they won’t miss Real Madrid and Barca match on TV, but now kids will miss el clasico.” says with smile, Krishnan. He got appointment in ICF and training these kids regularly without fail. He also added, they are learning through the matches they watch in TV and Internet.

“Football has given me a future,” said Chandru proudly, a final-year B.Com student at D.G.Vishnava College who got the ability to dribble a ball well. He also added “I didn’t perform very well in class XII, but football earned me a Division-level certificate and a college seat. Since I am a recognised player, now am a role model in my circle, which has also helped me build my self-esteem and be unique from others.”

Football in Black town

Football Culture has a long history in North Madras. “Since the British colonial period, football is played in this part, but as a daily wage working class, our elders took the game very lightly, but to elevate the living conditions of youth and children in Vyasarpadi, Bro. Sigamani, a Salesian priest and a group of young men from the Christian institutions introduced the game in the late 1980’s in a big way among the marginalised members of the community” said Thangaraj 57, Football Coach (SC-STEDS).

In the beginning it was used for a time pass and mind changing cause. But later they realized it, Football is not just about the game, it’s about education and empowerment and finding a sense of self-worth that goes beyond the field. Game that tranformed lives and the society.

Normally they are being affected by poverty and they fight hard to come out of their pain and struggle. The nature of football game synced with their real life emotions. So they chose to play football. Physically they may be weak on the game, but mentally they are very strong. They play with rage till last minute.

The nature of football game synced with their real life emotions. So they chose to play football. (Image: Sukumar)

Earlier they used to play in the streets, and then formed a ground by the lake side. That moment gave them lot of self-confidence and brought more people into the game. That’s why the game football is in their blood. They loved the game, they played really hard. Their unhealthy habits and behaviors slowly reduced from them. People from the North Chennai played really well and they joined with the football association of Tamil Nadu. And they played many district levels, state level match. That matches gave them more job opportunity and money for them to settle in their life. Ganpathy assistant coach of SC-STEDS said “Everywhere in the world, we see the same thing. Football has a change over power. When you kick the ball, automatically the transformation will happen. It’s happened to me and will happen to many.”

“People are always had a bad impression on North Chennai, like we are rowdies, not fit for anything, indecent people etc…, We playing here hard to change the name and want that people to look up on us ” said Darshini, U15 Player

Out Come of Women in Soccer

Football is the only game we could pull in more number of girl participation in North Madras. Football is generally a tough game for girls to make name for them in the game and only few women fight the odds to be considered serious players. With the slum background, girls are fighting really hard to come out of their home, generally they forced to go for the job or to marry soon because of their poverty. But they worked hard they shown their participation and successor in it. Every year the number is increasing high, due the outcome of girls who made them proud in the society.

Every year the number is increasing high, due the outcome of girls who made them proud in the society. (Image: Sukumar)

Bheemabhai.Janani and Mathumith who are represent Indian nation women football team. Bheemabhai’s story is quite inspiration to everyone, not only for a women. Been a dalit was discriminated in school and in her neighbourhood. Her only consolation in a time of sadness. was playing football. abuse at school got unbearable, she dropped out of school, SC-STEDS took her under their wings and made her dream again. Coach Thangaraj and other encouraged her game play. Football reintroduced her education but won many prestigious awards to drive her dreams towards a bright future. She won Ashoka Youth Venture Award in the year 2018. She continues to play football at the state and national level, she inspires children from her community as well as other women.

Apart from playing the game, women players converting them self as the football referee. Shakthishree has become an official FIFA referee.

Current Scenario of Football towards Empowerment in North Madras...?

With the help of Football many people from slums are settled in their life. If they played up to the senior division level, the appointment will come from the playing team as well as the many private companies. But many quit form the game after they settled in the life. So there are negative talks about slum soccer like people who play till their appointments only. They are seeing football as the job decider tool instead of a profession. Their poverty is factor, but who will develop the game…?

The main drawback for our kids in the selection was, they are not trained very regularly, that’s includes the diet. Due to poverty these kids won’t get the nutrition foods. The clubs are trying to give them proper food but they aren’t able to make them fit because after few levels, they do not clear the tests to go to next level. But going for an international level requires them to be fit in every category.

Interestingly and ironically, football has become a commodity with the emergence of Indian Super League (ISL). With ISL, football has become a commodity like cricket. This has the potential of robbing the game of the people of north Chennai. ISL culture has been making inroads in north Chennai as well and has started alienating the poor from their favourite sport by stealing their free grounds, which are now sporting entry fees. The body appears to bring about cosmetic changes to the environment, but in the end it is likely to alienate the people who play the game from their social and geographic backgrounds. ISL has not only attracted significant corporate money, but also led to huge improvement in infrastructure, there are forceful measures are also taken by the corporate at the grassroots level by promoting the game with the world class academies and encouraging more and more kids to take up football as a career.

Two champions and this year finalist Chennayin FC midfielder Dhanpal Ganesh and Odisha FC Nanth Kumar, is a youth icon, because both came from North Madras. Both comes from north Chenni. But none didn’t get opportunity (playing time) in the ISL come from the football association of north Chennai. Why? Is the question. There are so many football events happening in the city. Thanks to media blitz, ISL has commodified the game and has made entry into the afro turf in the city impossible for many poor kids as they are charged minimum Rs.2000 per hour.

The grounds which enabled the youth to play football are being used to build apartments for the poor by the government. "Every government comes with a plan to change the environment for the promotion of the game, but they forget it in the end and we are forced to give petitions in this regard again and again" said Srinivasan. He also added “if the government doesn’t care about us how NGOs will support us? Many NGOs are looking for fame and more money in the game. They are using our kids to get more money.”

It amounts to giving opportunity for the slum kids in the initial stages for the club's development and fame in the name of gross root training and slowly getting them away from the game. They silently highjack the game form them and giving them back in a different commodified version. Sports are meant to be tools of development, but the commodity version of ISL does not fit into this framework.

Sports are meant to be tools of development, but the commodity version of ISL does not fit into this framework. (Image: ISL)

"We are playing, we are getting more opportunity, but chances in higher level playing will be the question mark for the future players from our area. Indian football is reaching higher standard, but who will be going to play in the future ?", Coach Thangaraj's question was not only the voice of north Chennai slums, he is asking this question on behalf of the whole marginalised communities in India.

Future of Football

“There is only little difference between the children in the slums of other states and the children in the slums of Chennai. No matter what made their problems, but the effect is the same. All of them live in poverty” coach Thangaraj added more.

The transformation in lives of legendary football players happened because of the game so will it change the lives of little heroes north Chennai too, because if it happened to many legends it will happen to many who follow the legends too.

If these kids get healthy foods and professional coaching with proper infrastructure like ground, equipments, they will be the next Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar or Hazard. Many legends are growing up with the bundles of sorrows in the slums. Still these second class Indian citizens are eagerly waiting to see our Nation in FIFA World Cups. It will definitely happen with the help of the slum winners.

If these kids get healthy foods and professional coaching with proper infrastructure like ground, equipments, they will be the next Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar or Hazard. (Image: Sukumar)

And yet, this is only a small part of the football we know about the clubs and training academy of North Madras. It’s time to establish the power of football to effectively improve the society. Football is really all about—passion, teamwork and transformation of a common goal.

So I would proudly say… “Yes, football is a beautiful game.”

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