Published: 09th July 2018
How two brothers in Chennai's Vyasarpadi have used football to save a whole generation from gangs and ganja
The organisation currently has 150 players who receive professional training out of whom 25 players participate in state-level competitions
Vyasarpadi, a tough, poverty-stricken, working-class neighbourhood situated in the northern part of Chennai, has an unpleasant reputation. Harsh poverty, sparse employment opportunities and a history of gang violence have made it the hub of the underworld in the city. All of this has meant that this part of Chennai is often out of sight, and therefore, out of mind, when it comes to its more affluent neighbours.
Fed up of asking for help from a seemingly uncaring government, and concerned about the future of their close-knit community, two brothers N Umapathy and N Thangaraj sought to change things over a decade ago by setting up a community organisation to help teach slum kids football: The Slum Children’s Sports Talent Education Development Society (SCSTEDS). The organisation was registered in the year 2000. "We wanted to bring about a change in the reputation of our neighbourhood and thus came up with this. Children were apprehensive about going to schools and studying, so we thought we could get them involved in sports from where they can learn a lot of values and thus put the same effort into studying," says Thangaraj. “Most of the children here come from the neighbouring slums,” he adds. “The majority of them only have one parent, which is what makes them susceptible to child labour and anti-social elements.”
Soccer that socks liquor and illiteracy
Thangaraj says that he and his brother began their fight in 1997 when their biggest enemies were alcohol and tobacco. “There were no jobs,” he recalls, indicating that the few jobs that were available were well beyond the reach of the residents, because of their lack of access to educational facilities. “So people just drank and smoked away their lives. Children were not willing to go to schools, opting instead to work daily wage jobs. That's when we thought we should try to get them back on track by getting them interested in sports, which would in turn help in convincing parents to get them back to school," he adds.
Education is the ultimate aim of the two brothers — their organisation is all about breaking down barriers and bringing development to this part of Chennai using education like a scythe. "We try to help children with no chances at all. We give them as many chances as possible to become something. We don't discriminate. Some children don't have parents, so we give them even more attention," says Thangaraj.
Planting a seed of hope: Children play soccer to have a better life in this crime-infested area of the city
The neighbourhood was not at all supportive when the duo set out to form the organisation. “We spent 10 years just convincing the people that this will be good for their kids,” says the founder. But things slowly turned around. Bhuvaneshwari, whose 11-year-old son Janakiraman is a trainee at the organisation, tells us that her son has learned healthy habits after he started attending the coaching sessions, “He has also started taking an interest in studies. They are teaching discipline as well. I do not regret my decision of sending my son here even though I was very apprehensive at first.”
Bend it like the ladies
It’s not just the men who have benefited: The founders have also been busy training several girls in their organisation. Some of the stories of how girls have taken to the sport are genuinely heart-warming. "The football ground is located between my house and school. I used to cross it every day and notice kids playing all the time. Watching them play, every time they hit a goal I would get excited. I also noticed some girls play, so I wanted to play as well, but my parents immediately said no. They tried to tell me this is a game for boys and that there was no way they would allow me to go and play. I kept begging for months following which they finally agreed. We had to pay Rs 5 for a form in order to enroll and my parents had to buy me a pair of shoes. I started playing when I was studying in Class VI," Bemabai R, who is now 19 years old, narrates her story.
Beginning to play was not the end of her difficulties. "When I was in Class VIII I hit puberty, and so for the next six months I was not allowed to play. My parents told me that I couldn't wear shorts and thus I was not allowed to play. Several of my team members and coaches visited our house and told my parents to let me play, until finally, they agreed. I have played in various tournaments since then," she adds with an evident tinge of excitement in her voice. Bemabai is currently pursuing her III year in BSc Maths at Bharati Women's College. Recently, she played for the Madras University team at an All India level game and they came third. "As more and more girls did well, other parents sent their daughters and now we have a lot of them playing. Some have performed in games abroad too in several football leagues," adds Thangaraj.
We would like more funds in the future, build a larger team, and try to get the best facilities for our children
N Thangaraj, Founder
The grass isn't quite green on the money front
Despite all the good work, great vibes and extraordinary press, the organisation hardly receives aid. The brothers borrow from friends and family to help the kids follow their dream. The Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu (SDAT) has recently extended a helping hand towards the organisation. “Our players do not get the sponsorship the government school players get to participate in the tournaments organised by the School Games Federation of India,” said Thangaraj. "We would like more funds in the future, build a larger team, and try to get the best facilities for our children," he adds.
The organisation currently has 150 players who receive professional training out of whom 25 players participate in state-level competitions. The SCSTEDS boys competed in the Gothia Cup held in Sweden in 2010 where they beat the host country in the group stage. "Teamwork helps the kids to be more disciplined. Playing the game gives them more motivation to fight against all odds and demand their rights. Our goal is to raise their self-esteem, courage to fight problems and thus help them lead better lives," says Thangaraj.