With the FIFA World Cup around the corner, Chennai’s underground football scene is booming and how!

It’s close to five-thirty in the evening and St. Bede’s playground in Santhome, overlooking a cemetery and a stone’s throw from the Marina lighthouse, is a flurry of activity. An intense cricket match is just about drawing to a close. A school team needs more than 20 runs in a couple of balls, a feat they’re not going to achieve easily. With the last ball bowled, the bowler jubilantly high-fives his teammates. The rest of the team from the bench rush to greet the bowler and the captain and they troop out, satisfied with the win and the workout.

From the sidelines, a group of men are eagerly waiting for the cricketing action to end. They’ve just arrived in fancy cars and bikes, changed from their formal day wear to casual tracks and T-shirts. They wear their shoes meticulously, ensuring that the laces are tight.

And then, they bring out the football.

Welcome to Chennai’s underground football scene. Even as clubs and academies spring up this time of the year, players independently gather in the evenings, and sometimes even in the nights, to, well, have a ball.

Sport, they say, is trivial pursuit in many ways. But for these football fanatics, it represents a chance to play, learn, bond and much more.

Over the last decade or so, the craze for football has skyrocketed in a city that’s traditionally known to be passionate about cricket. So much so that people from all walks of life are coming together to take part in this new football culture that has taken root in the city. Apart from being an easy sport to be involved in, it is also an inclusive one — a sport that connects one social group with another and bridges gaps between different economic groups.

“For us, football is like religion. Once we get on the ground, we forget each other’s backgrounds. Only the game matters,” says photographer-actor Sunder Ramu, who plays with five different teams in the city. An actor with erratic shooting schedules, Sunder can always find a group playing somewhere in the city irrespective of the hour he gets off from work.

Every day, small groups of people gather in different parts of the city, at different time slots, to kick the ball around and forget everything beyond the length and breadth of the field. Post the game, it’s their time to sip on some goli soda or Gatorade and fraternise over football.

Children from Vyasarpadi play with actors from Poes Garden and businessmen who drive a Mercedes play with ‘football friends’ who take the MRTS to get to the ground. No one is too big or too small when they are on the field and players often range from 16 to 45 year olds. While these groups came together organically, the tournaments organized over time connected people who were otherwise unlikely to meet.

Weekend tournaments bring footballers from the city together and connect teams that play in Anna Nagar with those that play by the beach in Adyar. For the men who practice the sport with each other every day, these weekends are something to look forward to. “For a recent tournament, one of the guys from my team flew down from Bangalore and another from Singapore,” says Sunder who has been playing long enough with some people to have a history that binds them, and the game, together.

The competition is healthy and the bonds the men have forged with each other on the field are strong. “Sunder and I belong to rival teams, he’s my nemesis, but we’re good friends,” says Vikram Menon who plays at the Gandhi Nagar ground.

Call of the ball

Shankar wakes up at 5.30 am every day because two hours later, his work day starts and ever since he’s been the Assistant General Manager at Ashok Leyland, it usually stretches on for nine long hours. Twelve hours later, at 5.20 pm, Shankar arrives at St. Bede’s ground, steps out of his car and begins to strip. He dons his Chelsea jersey, puts on his sneakers and jogs to the ground to join his team for his everyday dose of fitness.

“When I started playing with them three years ago, most of them were still in college, so they called me ‘uncle’. I decided then that I will make them call me ‘anna’,” says 41-year-old Shankar, who has already achieved what he set out to do.

Shankar, who played basketball and cricket through school and college, now plays football 3-4 times a week. “Football is just another sport, but it has made me forget other sports,” says Shankar who runs to make sure his speed is up to mark, even on those days when he is unable to join his team to kick the ball around. Balancing work and family is a full time gig, which leaves him with very little time to spend on the field during weekends.

Like him, Vikram Menon has similar limitations even though his life is all about sport. A national level tennis player, he’s played tennis for the country and now plays football for fun. He hasn’t kept the fun to himself, though, and has passed the ball around to “help underprivileged children have a little bit more through football” with his venture, Life Is A Ball.

About six years ago, Vikram started organizing weekend tournaments in the city to get footballers together. The balls and cones that were left behind after these football events were usually donated to an orphanage. “When we saw how much a single ball could change a kid’s life, we thought why not send in people to coach them as well,” says Vikram about the genesis of Life Is A Ball.

A professional tennis coach, Vikram primarily works with children through football as opposed to any other sport because “it is the easiest sport to learn and teach” and one which can be played anywhere, be it a spacious classroom or a narrow alleyway.

Breaking new ground

At a stadium at Nungambakkam, very close to where tennis springs up to life during the Chennai Open, football fever is at its peak. Engineering students have completed their assignments for the day and are gathering to indulge in an intense game of football. The light here is dim and low, but that hardly matters to them.

“We’ve been playing for quite a few years now,” says Gautham, who is nicknamed ‘Ronaldo’ among his friends, “In fact, we are from different schools – while I’m from DAV, some of my current college friends whom I play with are from PSBB. Bonding over football is a lot of fun.” Seconding Gautham is Pawan, who is a passionate football fan. “It’s a great break from studies and helps us keep fit all the while,” he adds.

Irrespective of whether you are an amateur or a pro player, these little football groups are a great place to start off playing because if you aren’t learning how to play, you are teaching someone else how to. “Kids who couldn’t kick a ball when they first came in can beat us now and hold their own in any tournament,” says Sunder about the college youngsters he dribbles with.

However, he has a grouse; the grounds in Chennai are not up to the mark, and the risk of injury here is rather high. “The American school ground was one of the best in the city. It was even better than the stadium. But even that is shut down now,” he rues.

The lack of enough open spaces to play the game is a challenge. While football is a game that can be played anywhere, regular players sometimes pay a ‘penalty’ – they’re forced to walk into offices with an occasional limp or a sore back from playing on uneven fields every day.

Elsewhere, among the football fraternity in Pachaiyappa College, C.N. Murthy is sort of a legend. Currently coordinator of the Harrington Football Academy, he spends most of his week coaching kids and sometimes, even celebrities. Actor Arya, well known for his roles in Naan Kadavul and Madrassapattinam, is one of them. Other celebrities who indulge in some football action include Atharvaa and Abbas.

“Thanks to organized clubs and a lot of unorganized football in our ground, it is slowly taking over cricket,” he states confidently. He started training with 200 boys and he still trains the same number, only because of lack of space.

Fitness fad

While some play the game for the ‘fun of it’, many others indulge in it as it helps them sweat it out. Ilango Doraisamy is one of them. He might be a Mylapore autodriver by day, busy with savaaris, but come evenings and weekends, he changes tracks.

Growing up in North Madras, an area well known for its love for the sport, Ilango has played football his entire life. “As an autodriver, I struggle to make ends meet. I’ve a daughter who is in her sixth standard now and expenses are rising. But, football helps me forget all that.”

This is the confession of a man who, after playing the sport for 30 years now, still adores it so much that he doesn’t entertain clients post 7 pm. “There are several others who spend their evenings in mindless things and while away money,” he says, “Playing football, for me, is like freedom. It helps me keep my fitness levels high and makes my mind ‘free’.”

Chennai’s underground football scene provides an escape route for many – these players no longer spend their evenings lounging on the couch watching television or browsing the internet. While for some, the hours of running and tackling is a means to keep fit, others treat it as a chance to spend a few hours away from the everyday problems and pressures of life. Bill Shankly, popular Scottish footballer and manager, once famously commented, ‘Some people believe that football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you that it is much, much more important than that.” For these passionate city footballers, the sport is pretty much like that.