The sight of bullock carts ferrying construction debris to Vyasarpadi in the dead of night is still fresh in football coach N Thangaraj’s mind. It was 1995 and around 150 young men from the locality came together to level a pond in B Kalyanapuram to construct a football ground. They were not part of any formal group, and just called themselves ‘Vyasarpadi Youth’.
“It took us two years to create the ground,” recalls 54-year-old Thangaraj. “Back then, there was no place to play football in Vyasarpadi. We poured whatever mud and sand we could gather into the pond, little by little every day. At night, we went looking for construction debris dumped on roadsides,” he says. The debris was ferried on bullock carts whose owners were kind enough to support their cause. “Once the pond was levelled, we took turns to keep night vigils to protect it from miscreants,” he says. Their labour of love — the first football ground in Vyasarpadi — exists even today, but is inside a school compound.
Football runs in the veins of Vyasarpadi. A local joke goes that a grocery shop in the area may run out of salt, but never out of plastic balls. Almost every shop in Vyasarpadi sells plastic balls that little boys kick about in front of their houses. “When we hit the ground to play, we forget all our problems. Nothing matters but the game,” says Thangaraj.
Children in the area deal with a lot since most are from disadvantaged families. Football is their outlet; something that they cling on to without fear of being let go. And the game has, for its part, rewarded them. Today, several players from Vyasarpadi have made a name for themselves — from S Nandhakumar who plays for Delhi Dynamos in the Indian Super League, to Umashankar who plays for Ozone Group FC. The area has produced over 100 District, 60 State, and 32 National-level players, according to Thangaraj.
He, along with N Umapathy, who was the goalkeeper for the Tamil Nadu team, started Slum Children Sports Talent and Education Development Society (SCSTEDS) in 1997 and registered it in 2000. Today, several children come to play at the artificial football turf that the Corporation has constructed for SCSTEDS in Vyasarpadi. Coaching is free and so is access to the turf’s facilities. The residents have come a long way from the pond-turned-ground to the state-of-the-art facility they have now.
“We started SCSTEDS to instil a sense of responsibility in our children,” says Thangaraj. “Around 20 years ago, instances of suicides among youngsters in Vyasarpadi was high. They fared poorly in school and several of them fell prey to substance abuse.” The men used football to guide them towards a better life. Their trick worked wonders. As more and more boys and girls signed up, Vyasarpadi saw visible change. “We have achieved 97% pass percentage in the class X public exams this year from nearly nothing in 2000,” says Thangaraj. He credits this to the discipline football inculcates.
What is the origin of Vyasarpadi’s football culture? “I’m not sure,” says Thangaraj. “It is said that Br Antony Sigamani, a social activist, introduced the sport in the locality years ago.” It stuck on, since Thangaraj feels the game is ideal for those with a fighting spirit, much like his own people.
As evening nears, students jog into the turf to play — gangly boys in shorts they just changed into, their faces tired after school, but happy nevertheless. “ Vanakkam , master,” they say, as they pass by, their palms held together in salutation at Thangaraj. Most of the boys dream of becoming football players — from B Kalyan, the son of a porter, to E Vijayaraj, whose father is an auto-driver.
“We beat Sweden in a league match in the Gothia Cup (world’s largest youth football tournament) in 2010,” says C Thiyaragaran, the captain of the SCSTEDS team. The team didn’t qualify for the semi-finals, but the 24-year-old is proud of the victory; they were the first Asian team to beat a European group. “The Swedish team’s coach told us something at the end of the match,” says Thiyaragaran. “I didn’t understand a word of it. But the way he looked at us said it all — he admired our game.” For the young men from a locality that’s looked down upon even by its own city, this was a big achievement.