S Nandhakumar woke up to the sight of boys and girls playing football at Kalyanapuram ground in Vyasarpadi every day. He saw them on his way to school, and on his way back.
“My father, who was then an auto driver, took me to the ground one morning,” says the 27-year-old, who just returned to Chennai after winning the Intercontinental Cup as part of the Indian team. He was the only player from Tamil Nadu at the tournament held at Bhubaneswar last month among India, Lebanon, Vanuatu, and Mongolia.
The Slum Children Sports Talent and Education Development Society’s team (SCSTEDS) practised at the Kalyanapuram ground every day, led by coaches N Umapathy, who used to be the goalkeeper for the Tamil Nadu team, and N Thangaraj. They took the 10-year-old into their fold. “Every kid in Vyasarpadi was playing football then,” says Nandhakumar, adding that they still do. He remembers nothing extraordinary about his game as a school boy, when he played for the SCSTEDS’ club regularly.
It was only once he finished Class X and got into Wesley Higher Secondary School in Royapettah, through the sports quota, did he understand what football could do for him. “I went to a Corporation School in Vyasarpadi. I got into Wesley only because of my game,” he says.
From then on, football steered Nadhakumar’s life. He played at the Chennai League matches regularly and in 2010, when he was 15, he travelled to Sweden for the first time to play for SCSTEDS at the Gothia Cup, considered the world’s largest international youth football tournament.
“This was also my first time on a flight,” says Nandhakumar, adding with a laugh: “I remember feeling numb; I got very sick on it.” His team did not win, but they beat Sweden, the host team. “This boosted our confidence,” he says. This tournament was also when he got to interact with and observe players from international teams.
Nandhakumar eventually got into Hindustan University thanks to his talent being spotted by coaches there, and went on to play for the university’s team. He also made it to the I-League for Chennai City FC and participated in the Santosh Trophy and Premier Futsal in 2017. “The years 2017 to 2018 were a rollercoaster ride,” he says, adding that he played several life-changing matches, eventually getting promoted to the Indian Super League and playing for Delhi Dynamos. It rained goals for Nandhakumar then, and he scored 11 goals in Durand Cup, ISL matches and Super Cup combined from 2022 to 2023.
Meanwhile, back home in Vyasarpadi, Nandha ‘anna’ became the topic of discussion among young boys and girls. “Kids who admired Ronaldo and Messi, started following him since they could better connect with someone from their locality,” says coach Thangaraj of SCSTEDS: “They emulated his playing style; the way he carries the ball, shakes and cuts it.”
Nandhakumar contributed to changing the prejudice surrounding Vyasarpadi. “The moment we mention we are from the neighbourhood, people assume we are rowdies,” he says. He ensured he was the face of a new Vyasarpadi, one in which boys and girls walked with their heads held high and led disciplined lives. “My game automatically had a positive effect on my lifestyle,” he adds.
Now, there is a huge following in Vyasarpadi for ‘Nandha’, as he is popularly known. Young boys follow his dressing style, not to mention the way he does his hair. T Akash, a 16-year-old footballer brushes his hair upwards to create a puff, like his hero.
This is the first time Nandhakumar played for the senior National team. “I had goosebumps when I put on the team India jersey,” he says. “It is a feeling I cannot describe in words.” His is an extraordinary journey that began at a football ground in a neglected North Chennai locality. Being a mentor keeps him going, he states: “I have to ensure my game continues to be top notch. I have more responsibility on my shoulders now.”