J Saktheeshwari was often the first to arrive at the playground of the Corporation school in Kalyanapuram, Vyasarpadi. The 12-year-old was not there to play football; sports, in fact, was the last thing on her mind then. She sold cut mangoes and peanuts there and had eyes only for potential customers. “But everything changed when the coaches, who noticed me, asked if I too wanted to play,” says Saktheeshwari, who is now 30 years old. She is talking about N Thangaraj and N Umapathy, who started the Slum Children Sports Talent and Education Development Society (SCSTEDS) in 1997. Today, Saktheeshwari is a football coach herself, and trains girls studying in Government schools in and around Vyasarpadi. The girls are all playing in the ongoing Baby League that SCSTEDS, with support from All India Football Federation, has been conducting all through November.
This is the first time that SCSTEDS is organising the Baby League, a format of the game that has four categories such as Under-10, 11, 12, and 13. “We have eight teams playing under each category, 250 boys and girls in total,” Umapathy explains. The children are all from disadvantaged backgrounds in North Chennai. The idea, according to Umapathy, who has played in the U-21 Nationals in the early 1990s, is to identify talent, and bring it to the notice of the Federation. “Baby League matches have long been held in other parts of the State, but we want to bring the focus on the excellent talent pool available in North Chennai,” he adds.
SCSTEDS is registered as the League Operator on the Federation’s Golden Baby League mobile application, and as matches play out, updates the app with information on each player, such as the number of goals scored. “This gives a clear picture on what they are capable of,” Umapathy points out. Matches take place at SCSTEDS’ artificial turf at Vyasarpadi that the Chennai Corporation has constructed. The coaches already have a list of skilled players, and are set to give them focussed coaching in the coming years. “Our vision is to create players who can represent India in the 2030 or 2034 World Cup,” Umapathy says. “If we start early, anything is possible.”
Football is the life blood of North Chennai’s children. “There is a team in every corner,” points out Thangaraj, adding: “It gives them a sense of purpose. Despite lack of support from home — many of our children’s parents are daily wagers — they come to play at 6am every morning, go to school, come for practice at 5pm afterwards… At SCSTEDS, we use this sport as a tool for change. Not a day goes by without players gathering in a circle at the same turf for tuitions after practice.”
When Thangaraj and Umapathy started out, they had only each other for support. Today, they have four certified coaches from the neighbourhood who carry on their work. This includes 26-year-old M Dilipan, who trains children at the SCSTEDS turf as well as at Government schools in North Chennai. Dilipan had represented India in the U-13, 14, 16, and 19 tournaments.
His mother sold pani puri to keep the family afloat, supporting her son’s dream. Dilipan lost his father early on and perhaps because of the difficult life he led, he was used to pushing himself even when the chips were down. This came in handy when he played for the country. “In 2006, I scored the winning goal against Pakistan as part of the U-13 Indian team,” he recalls. The tournament was held in Bangladesh, and Dilipan travelled by flight for the first time then. “I can never forget that journey,” he recalls. “I had a window seat.” He eventually started flying often for matches, including to places such as Iran, Dubai, and Sweden.
A muscle tear in his right leg put an end to his football career. “I couldn’t afford the treatment,” he says. He eventually had to stop playing. Today, though, he says he is happy to be back in the game, although as a coach.
There is a difference in the way football is seen in North Chennai and other parts of the country and the world, according to Umapathy. “Here, parents of players see it as a means of survival, as something that will give their children a shot at a better life,” points out Umapathy, who got a job in the Income Tax Department through sports quota. “Which is why Government support is crucial. With better infrastructure, equipment, and technical support, we can surely create world class players.”
R Parthiban (12), B Roshan (13), and Lankaanushika (10) meanwhile, are having a ball at the league match. For now, though, they are not worried about making it to the Indian team. Their teams have done well at the Baby League and they are waiting to carry on the winning spree. Their favourite player? “Ronaldo,” say Parthiban and Roshan, while Lankaanushika says without batting an eyelid: “Thiyagu anna.” She is talking about her coach C Thiyaragaran, who used to be the captain of the SCSTEDS team.