Asha Sridhar and Serena Josephine M. find out that it’s more than just a game in north Chennai

When J. Shaktheeshwari dropped out in class VII and started working at the Vyasarpadi fish market, she had little hope of studying again. Until she took to football.

Seven years since, her journey, like the ball she tackles, has often wavered and gathered dust, but she has not taken her eyes off the ball or her books.

“I went back to school because of my football coach. Today, I am studying law. This is true of many children in Vyasarpadi,” said Shaktheeshwari, who was wearing a blue jersey and was busy recording the ‘Five-a-side’ club match on a camcorder.

On a Sunday morning, the Corporation playground near the Mullai Nagar bus stop, was brimming with young girls and boys dribbling and tackling the ball, and names such as Messi and Ronaldo and Barcelona and Bayern Munich rolled off tongues effortlessly.

The fervour and celebration in many neighbourhoods in north Chennai during the football world cup is well known. But the love for the game and the purpose it serves extends much beyond the normal here.

J. Elangovan, who runs the Young Men Social Club in Pulianthope, and has been training young boys for several years, said there are around-40 football clubs in north Chennai. “Many of my students have got jobs because of the game. Earlier, only a handful would pass class X but today, 30 out of 50 go to college,” he said.

Though the crime-prone neighbourhood has a dubious reputation, children from Vyasarpadi’s local football clubs have made it to tournaments such as The Paris 2011 Homeless World Cup and 2010 Gothia World Youth Cup in Sweden.

R. Kannan Deva of Sathyamurthy Nagar, who is an ardent fan of Barcelona’s Carlos Puyol, recently took part in the under-16 football championship held in Pune in May as part of the Tamil Nadu team.

The class X student, who has been playing for five years, was spotted by chance when he was playing with marbles, by a local coach who lived nearby. “I love the game and it has given me a lot of confidence. I have participated in games held in Punjab and Goa as well, and the experience has been great,” he said.

N. Umapathy, secretary, Slum Children Sports Talent Education Development Society, said their society used football as a tool for social change. “Football is popular in north Chennai because it is a hands-on sport and 80 per cent of the players are from downtrodden communities. Though not all may break into the mainstream sports scene, we look at it as a way of creating social change as we work with the children over a period of time on many fronts,” he said as children gathered around him for bread and milk between the matches.

As 10-year old Prakash Raj and his friend K. Sanjay waited eagerly for the final match of the ‘Five-a-side’ tournament for which their team had qualified, Shaktheeshwari, talked about how she was encouraging girls in nearby tenements to play the game. Girls have been part of the club for seven years now. “Change has to come from within and it has to be mobilised by someone from the community who understands the realities,” she said.

Many of these girls are now regulars at the weekend games. P. Jayasudha and her team were happy with the three goals they scored during the club match on Sunday. Jayasudha has been playing football for the last six years and loves to be the goalkeeper.

“I joined the team when I saw my sister Ramya playing football with ease,” said Keerthika one of the girls. Her favourite player is Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal. The girls said their families allowed them to play football but seldom allowed them to watch the game on television.

The sport, said, Umapathy, was also a means of forming a peer group, which plays and studies together. The newest member is Uma Mahaeshwari K., a class IV student. She is yet to make up her mind about whether she wants to become a collector, a policewoman or a doctor.

“We hit only two goals this time. But I am learning fast. Next time we’ll win,” she said with a resolution that defies her age.

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