In the middle of a busy neighbourhood in Vyasarpadi — a locality of Chennai known for its crime — jubilant cheering pierce the windy evening.
Amused onlookers surround a ground where a bunch of kids sporting differently-coloured jerseys with names of stars such as Pogba, Ronaldo and even Kane run around, unmindful of anything around them. All that matters is getting the ball past the goalkeeper.
It’s days before the biggest international sporting tournament — the quadrennial FIFA World Cup — begins on June 14. And, as far as children from this area are concerned, it’s time to celebrate the game.
Nine-year-old Sanjay can barely catch his breath after sprinting across the pitch, but says he is a hardcore Brazil fan and can’t wait to see the Seleção in action. “My father is a huge fan of football, and I have vivid memories of my whole family cheering for the Brazil national team four years ago,” said Sanjay. “Now, I’m a Neymar fan and follow suit. Many of my friends support Argentina because of Messi though,” added the little right-forward.
Like Sanjay, many other children and teenagers in the locality eagerly await the tournament every four years. In fact, cricket is a distant second favourite here. Why? For them, football is far more than a sport; it changes lives and keeps children from underprivileged backgrounds from succumbing to vices.
Thangaraj, who runs Slum Children Sports Talent and Education Development Society (SC-STEDS) along with Umapathy and Suresh, said, “We organise World Cup screenings for the entire community here on a big screen and it’s a total celebration.” He added, “We consider this place to be the football hub of the city, where emotions run really high during such tournaments.”
Moving on to newly-christened FC Madras, teenager Leonardo Christi, who plays for the club, said that Brazil is their favourite for the win. He claimed that he has been a fan ever since he watched Ronaldinho dribble years ago. “My father is a social worker, and I have been playing for almost six years now. Many of my friends are going to support Portugal and Ronaldo though, as they idolise them and mimic his skills on the pitch,” said the 12-year-old from Villivakkam.
Coach Aaron Thomas, who works with these kids from poor and middle-class backgrounds, said that they are all excited for Thursday to arrive. “Brazil seems to be the overwhelming favourite – but it will be tough for them as they don’t have many individual stars outside Neymar. Strong European powers like Germany and Spain will give them tough competition, so Brazil will have to play as a team,” said Thomas.
Footballer Adhithi Rajagopal, who has represented Chennai, Tamil Nadu and Indian football teams, is currently the coach of the U-16 Chennai girl’s team. She said that though the city doesn’t really have to many screening options but, she will watch the games with her friends. “It’s fun to see the posters around town and sports shops promote the event. I’m happy that some effort is being put in there,” said Adhithi.
“I think Argentina will have a lot of support here, because of Messi. That is one name that children, even those who do not have televisions in their homes, know,” she added. Adhithi also plays for the Cardiff Metropolitan University team, where she is a student.
Adhithi Rajagopal, Coach of the U-16 Chennai girl’s team (L); Aaron Thomas, Coach for poor and middle-class kids
‘Watching it live is the ultimate experience’
63-year-old I Gandhi, a retired manager from RBI is one of the few Chennaiites to have witnessed the spectacle live – the 2006 tournament in Germany. “It was phenomenal and a dream for a football fans. Every German household sported a flag and showed amazing patriotism. It was perfectly organised and we had the opportunity to interact with citizens from different countries such as the USA and Holland,” he said.
Gandhi recounted his favourite moment: “The stadiums were impeccable and there was no difficulty in finding our way or issues with security. The legendary Maradona sat in the next gallery to us, during the game when Argentina played against Netherlands. It was also Messi’s first ever World Cup game!”
Gandhi, who plays for Phoenix Veteran’s FC even today, also organises matches for kids, and keenly follows the game. “All of us veterans go to each other’s houses or meet at the RBI quarters, to arrange screenings and watch games in a big group. Though there are other favourites, I believe the French team could be the potential dark horse this year.”
Meanwhile, Chennaiites Aditya Sankar and his friend S Priyanka are in Russia, where they are all set to watch six games over the course of the next month. Aditya gushes over having tickets for the England-Belgium game, as he is a supporter of the Three Lions. “The game is at the Kaliningrad Stadium on Oktyabrsky Island, and it’s going to be one amazing watch.”
“I’m keeping fingers crossed that the likes of Kane and Alli will help England atleast reach the quarters. We booked the tickets well in advance – apart from the matches, Russia is a gorgeous country and the culture and architecture is fascinating,” he said.
Members of FC Madras line up for a photograph (L); Komaleeswaran Sankar
‘More awareness about football needed in Chennai’
Speaking to DT Next, FIFA assistant referee Komaleeswaran Sankar, India’s only official to in a World Cup (the 2002 South Korea-Japan edition), tells us that he hopes the hype picks up more come June 14. “I have to say that I’m disappointed with the city. I visited Kerala recently where everything from walls to the autos were decked in sporting colours. Whereas here, we don’t even see one percentage of the anticipation the IPL gets,” said Sankar. “This comes just after Chennaiyin FC won the ISL and India won the Intercontinental Cup earlier this week. Only the football fraternity seem genuinely interested,” he said. “Apart from a few papers, I hardly notice the media highlighting the World Cup previews or giving it proper coverage like earlier times. All sports must be respected equally,” Sankar added. Despite the lack of apparent hype, Sankar admits that he is looking forward to Russia hosting the competition. “Actually, people who attend this time are lucky – as Russia has pulled out all stops. From the visa being free-of-cost to issuing fan ID cards that allow smooth access to all the stadiums, spectators are set for a special journey,” he said.