Vyasarpadi, a locality in Chennai densely populated with slums, has become synonymous with football. While the rest of India is going crazy over cricket, this sport has become the heart and soul for the children of this area. Each street has witnessed the emergence of its own little Messi, Ronaldo and Beckham. From district-level to nation-level football tournaments, most of them have kept the flag flying high.
On a regular day in the locality, one is sure to spot swarms of children practising football in Mullai Nagar after their school hours. The seed was sown in the late 90s.
Thangaraj, a football coach, founded the organisation SC-STEDS (Slum Children Sports, Talent, and Education Development Society) along with his friends in 1997. His aim was to educate the children through football. So, what propelled him to take the step forward?
â€śI grew up in a thatched hut in this slum. Since my childhood, I was inclined towards football and my passion helped me become a football coach,â€ť says Thangaraj.
His organisation is home to an international-standard football turf. From humble beginnings, the number of children from slums and low-income neighbourhoods coming to learn football has greatly increased over the decade.
â€śIt was a challenge for me to bring such children to play. We have rescued many child labourers and given them a new hope through football,â€ť he says.
Once the children gradually found an interest in the sport, Thangaraj and his team instilled the need for education in their minds and proceed to enrol them in schools. Being debt-ridden blue-collar workers, most of their parents were reluctant at first to stop their children from working. However, they would oblige once he explained how their lives would improve once their children landed lucrative jobs after completing their education.
His vision has seen successes in the long run. In part through Thangaraj efforts, Class 10 passing percentage of students went from single digits in 2000 to 99% in 2018. Moreover, the number of neighbourhood girls coming forward to learn football is increasing day by day. â€śGirls are empowered when they play football. It liberates their minds from the patriarchal nature of the society,â€ť he explains. Seeing his painstaking efforts, many benefactors and NGOs such as CRY (Child Rights and You) had come forward to lend a helping hand.
Affectionately called Thangaraj master, he is a favourite among the children. Many of his students bear testimony to his success. Among them is Surya, a final-year Economics student and a district-level football player. â€śWhen I was eight, I was aimlessly playing goli on the streets. Thangaraj master used to constantly pester me to go to school. After I agreed, he enrolled me in a school and encouraged me to play football,â€ť he says. â€śItâ€™s almost been a decade now. After seeing me, many in my neighbourhood have been encouraged to take up the sport. I myself have brought 10 people to STEDS.â€ť
â€śI owe my success to Thangaraj master and his teamâ€ť, says Gokul Prasath, another district-level player, â€śWhen I was small, he promised to buy me a ball and brought me to the ground. If I had not discovered football, I would have taken the wrong path.â€ť
The game has garnered a dedicated fan following in Vyasarpadi over the years. During major football tournaments, particularly the World Cup, the residents go gaga and celebrate it like a festival. Cakes are cut and banners are put up on the streets. Last year, the World Cup series was projected on a huge LED screen in the turf for the children. The extent of its popularity is such that many residents have named their children after famous footballers.
The youngest football player in STEDS is a little boy named Maradona.