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Football sows seeds of hope in gangland
Vyasarpadi, a working class neighbourhood in north Chennai, is often tagged with crime and underworld in the city. Eighteen years ago, two brothers refused to accept that.
N Umapathy and N Thangaraj set up an organisation, the Slum Childrens Sports Talent Education Development Society (SCSTEDS), to turn children away from the world of crime. A look at what they achieved, while the world is celebrating the ‘beautiful game’ that is being played out in Russia.
When they started off, the brothers literally had to go from home to home to convince people that playing a bit will only help their kids prosper in life, recalled Thangaraj, a freelance photographer by day but a strict coach after sundown.” The neighbourhood was not supportive when we set out to form the society. We spent 10 years just convincing the people that this will be good for their kids,” added Umapathy, whose day job is with the Income Tax Department.
Years later, the set-up is not elaborate but the turf on Corporation Park off Sathyamoorthy Nagar Main Road teaches football to 300 kids and shows them a path to a better life. “We not only focus on the game but try to instil discipline in the kids. They study hard, too,” said Thangaraj.
Bhuvaneshwari, whose 11-year-old son Janakiraman is a trainee here, said her son has learned healthy habits after he started attending the coaching sessions, “He has also started studying regularly. They are teaching discipline as well. I do not regret my decision of sending my son here even though I was a bit hesitant at first.”
Hardly receiving any 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. “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. “They only get a reward of Rs 2,000 from SDAT if they win.”
It was in this very turf that the brothers developed over the years where Indian Super League (ISL) team Delhi Dynamos’ latest and most expensive Indian player (Rs 23,00,000), Nandhakumar Sekar, discovered his love for football. Son of a pandal (marquee) worker, Nandhakumar, joined SCSTEDS at a tender age of seven and had never looked back since: the best player for Hindustan College for three years, got selected to play for the Chennai City FC in early 2017 and was loaned to Delhi Dynamos. He, eventually, signed the transfer on January 19.
The trainees consider Nandhakumar not only their hero but their hope, that they can also rise up to where he has reached.
Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar top the chart of their favourite players. But nine-year-old Pratish Kumar admires Chennaiyin FC striker Jeje Lalpekhlua. “I play right forward and I want to be like him. I want to be a successful man one day.”
The society 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 where they beat the host country in the group stage. “We need better equipment and a better coaching for our players to perform better. The output they produce with so few facilities is amazing,” said Umapathy.
But the police do not seem to agree that the tireless efforts of the brothers have made much difference. According to them, the notorious gangsters like Nagendran, now lodged in prison, continue to hold sway over the children in the neighbourhood. “The youngsters are still joining because of the money,” said Sivaramakrishnan, constable, MKB Nagar Police Station.
Sub-Inspector Perumal echoed Sivaramakrishnan, “We can’t even beat them up now, they have human rights activists are on their side. No one is really afraid of us. There are more and more small gangsters coming up even though we try our best to stop them. Nobody is ready to complain as they are afraid of them.”
“The police should make sure that people are motivated. That would be a better way to end crime rather than breaking bones. If officers come down and do community service, it will also build confidence in the public that the police are on their side,” said social activist Jagadheeswaran Dhakshinamoorthy. “Unemployment and various addiction problems play a major role here. There should be proper crackdowns,” he said, adding that there should be proper rehabilitation schemes to help deal with unemployment.