The wiry 18-year-old waits for me patiently at the end of her street. She spins a yellow and black football in her hand, her face splitting into a wide smile as she dribbles the ball expertly.
This is Sangeetha, a former child labourer from Chennai's Pillayar Kovil Street in George Town, who shot into the limelight recently.
Just two months ago, in May, Sangeetha hit the headlines for leading India’s team in the Street Child World Cup, an international football tournament held in Russia. The tournament organised by the NGO Street Child United sees talented children from the streets of 5 different continents fight it out for a cup, once every 4 years.
Sangeetha with members of Team India at the Street Football World Cup 2018 in Russia
Sangeetha captained the Indian team in the third edition of the World Cup, which saw the participation of children from 24 other countries.
But before her chance encounter with football changed her life, Sangeetha had to work as a child labourer.
"I dropped out of school in the 9th standard, when I was 13 years old, to help my family. My dad suffered from alcohol addiction and left us long ago. My mum and sister were working to support the family. But we weren't able to make ends meet. So I joined a steel vessel manufacturing firm across the street, where we had to melt old vessels, make new ones from the alloy and polish them. The job came with a high risk of Tuberculosis," she says.
For Sangeetha and her family, the corner of the narrow lane that joins the Pillayar Kovil Street is home. Rain or shine, the family sits near the junction box here and does everything from drying clothes to eating in this little nook. Plastic sheets cover the few belongings the family owns, as bricks and broken stools lie in front of the tin shed.
The stint at the steel manufacturer's didn't last too long. As soon as Karunalaya, a prominent NGO in Chennai fighting for the rights of children, heard about the 13-year-old, it pulled her out of work and put her back in school.
"The NGO requested my school to take me back, even though I was not interested in going. They used to tutor me after school so I could catch up with my classmates. One day, I saw a bunch of boys playing football and I immediately wanted to join them. I told the NGO that I wanted to learn the game; they said they’d teach me only if I studied,” laughs Sangeetha. “And that was how I first encountered the game.”
Football and education
It took Sangeetha’s coach just a few months to understand that she was a natural talent.
In her very first tournament, the 'Slum Soccer Gamesa' organised in Besant Nagar, she brought laurels to her team. At that time, she represented Karunalaya’s girls team. The team won the tournament and Sangeetha brought home the Best Player award.
From here, there was no looking back.
In 2016, she was the only player from Tamil Nadu to be selected as part of the squad representing India in the Homeless World Cup held in Glasgow, Scotland.
"They told us only a few months before the tournament and I was besides myself with joy. It was the first time I went outside Chennai, my first time in a flight and my first ever trip abroad," smiles Sangeetha.
Following this, she was selected to represent India in the 2018 Street Child World Cup in Moscow, this time as captain - an achievement that made her the pride of her street.
"We won against Mexico and I scored one goal in our game. We gave it all we got," she says.
Sangeetha's strength is her level of fitness, says her mentor and street co-ordinator Vasanth, who works for Karunalya.
"She was noticed as she played very well. And mainly because of her stamina. It is very hard to play 90 minutes of football without getting absolutely drained. Besides her stamina, Sangeetha is uninhibited on the field and plays with complete passion," Vasanth tells TNM.
Four years have passed since she first dabbled in football. Today, she is pursuing her B.Sc in Physical Education in Queen Mary’s College. And till date, she travels to the Karunalaya campus every day to train for her matches.
Life on the streets
On the dark, narrow lane connecting Pillayar Kovil to the parallel street, Sangeetha kicks around the yellow ball in the fading evening light. She expertly dribbles the ball, showing other children on the street how to tackle.
The ball bounces off garbage cans into puddles of dirt as 5-year-old Sugunan and 15-year-old Monisha pass the ball between each other.
Sangeetha’s grandmother sits on a concrete slab nearby. The tin shed next to her teems with people catching up on their daily serial on the TV set inside. Lines of clothes hung to dry run from the shed to the open street and a boy squats in front of the water pipe nearby, washing off soap from his body.
The kids here are all fans of football, but when asked if they are following the World Cup they shake their heads.
"We have only one TV for so many families. Besides, the World Cup is aired on Sony Ten 2 channel and we don't get that channel here. So I only get to watch the highlights everyday when I go for training," Sangeetha says.
Living on the streets came with several challenges, especially for a girl trying to pursue her sporting ambitions.
Lending support to her child’s dreams was not easy, says Sangeetha’s mother, Selvi. She had to work as a domestic help in the hotels on Wall Tax Road, where she washed vessels and cleaned the premises in order to ensure all three of her children got food.
At first, Selvi couldn’t understand Sangeetha’s new-found passion for the game.
"When she started playing, she had to wear shorts and pants. I was against the idea and was even criticised by many for allowing her to do so. But then I realised that is what she liked doing and, when she started winning medals, I supported her and others soon realised how well she was doing. Now, we are all super proud of her," Selvi tells TNM.
Battling ogling men, judgemental neighbours and predators on the street is something the children here, especially girls, experience on a daily basis.
"It is hard to focus on your game when that happens. Many times, men on the road have given me money and asked for dirty favours. Everyday we fight such problems as we sleep on the pavements. We use the public toilet here and it is so scary to change our clothes without people taking a peek through the windows," she says.
As Sangeetha started getting selected for international tournaments, other challenges in the form of documents and ID proofs came her way.
"I didn't have a birth certificate or an address proof to show. We only had a Voter's ID. So it was difficult to get a passport as they said that I need to show them a permanent address to get one. We don't have a permanent address. This street is my address. This is when Karunalaya director's intervened and helped me get my passport and visa for Scotland," Sangeetha says.
Future in football
This year, Sangeetha will be eligible to play for the state football team.
"She has been training for the selections set to take place next month. Another student from Tamil Nadu who played for the Homeless World Cup got selected to the State Junior Girls team recently," says Vasanth.
Despite football taking up a major chunk of her time, Sangeetha has her priorities set for the future. She wants to study and become a professional football coach, and inspire the generations to come with her game, she says.
"There aren't many women coaches here. I want to train to be a coach, get a licence and teach many kids to play football," she says.