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A woman carries a water pot on the streets of Vyasarpadi.

(Photo Courtesy: Tanmoy Bhaduri)

In Photos: How Football Gives Hope to This Chennai Slum’s Kids

For children who grew up in this slum, channelising all their restless energy through football became a lifesaver.

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6 min read

The first piece of advice I got before walking into Vyasarpadi, the second largest slum in the country and the biggest in Chennai, was to be careful. I was walking into a community notoriously known for its aggression and crime rates. To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect, what kind of scenes I would encounter.

A few months back, when Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian footballer shared his story, the world sat up and heard, mesmerised. What I witnessed at Vyasarpadi this August, I dare say, is no less a wonder. This story goes back a little in time before coming back to the present.

Umapati and Yeshwanth were two people who grew up in Vyasarpadi, surrounded by chaos, regular fights and numerous crimes during their youth. While most of their contemporaries had compromised with their fate, these two, armed with education, believed in the possibilities of change. They didn’t know how it would happen, but the one thing they were sure of, was that change could only be brought about by changing the younger generation and not the adults. And for them, the only game changer they knew of was education. They started talking to children to mobilise them, to unify them.

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No one was interested in the beginning and one question stared them in the face – how to get the children to school amidst the chaos that reigned?

After much deliberation, these two state and national level football players found the solution in the only thing they had full confidence in – football. And so, like many resource-poor regions in the world, began their tryst with this life changing game.

The strategy was simple – channelise all the energy of the children towards the game, get children addicted to it, use the addiction to talk to them about going to school. They didn’t expect much, but this approach worked like magic.

For the children who grew up in an aggressive environment, channelising all their restless energy through football became a lifesaver. The full attendance at the practice sessions that start at 6 am every single day, at the local dumping ground turned into a football field, is proof of that.

Slowly this simple strategy started getting refined and Umapati and Yeshwanth registered their organisation in the year 2000. Today the organisation goes by the name of Vyasarpadi Children’s Empowerment. Supported by Child Rights and You, the organisation has its own football team called Sports Talent Education Development Society or STEDS.

Their diligence and passion saw its fruits in the form of Dhillipan. Dhillipan was one of the first few children to be identified. Having lost his father early, Dhillipan used to spend all his time roaming around aimlessly, he wasn’t interested in games or in studies. It took them a long time to get him interested in football, and the rest, as the cliché goes, is history. Dhillipan went on to play football for Tamil Nadu and then represent India internationally in the sport.

I think everyone deserves at least one chance; regardless of who they are. Having grown up in a single-parent family, I guess I have a soft corner for children like me. That’s why I always give away my extra sports materials to the kids here. Whenever I’m able to, I try to motivate these children to explore their interests and participate in sports. Football has changed my life and I want others to experience what I have gained.
Dhillipan, Chennai United Football player.

To be honest, till this point in time, my mind was drawing parallels between the stories of all the great south American and African origin football players of the world. To see the same happening in the slums of our country, being spearhead tirelessly by two people who believed in the power of the game, was great.

And then I met Beemabai – a 19-year-old girl who spoke little and hit the ball with an unmatched aggression. She leads the women’s football team of STEDS.

“I used to pass by the football ground and look at the other children play every day. What struck me was that there were a lot of boys and only three girls. Only three! It was just like the scenario at home. My father and my brothers used to go out to work, and we were told that women are supposed to stay at home. I started playing football with a simple mission – I wanted to change this story, and I will,” Beema told me.

“Also, this slum, my home, is known to the world for all the wrong reasons – all the crimes, all the terrible things – I want Vyasarpadi to be known differently. I want to be the one to change its image in the eyes of the world!”

And changing the story she is. Following her footsteps is a little girl called Kirthana, the daughter of a daily-wage labourer and a homemaker.

“My mother has a huge problem with me playing a so-called manly game of football, that too, wearing shorts! But I will keep playing. I will prove her wrong one day; I will prove that girls are meant to conquer the world. And you know what father my says? He says his daughter will follow her dreams, no matter what! I will make him proud one day, just you watch me,” said this 13-year-old as a mischievous smile spreads across her face.

“We have all heard about, been inspired by and tried to imbibe the spirit of this game called football. It has been an amazing experience to see how the game has not only unified, but also completely transformed the present and the future of the children in this slum. These children who would otherwise grow up to uncertain futures and chaotic lives, are now dreaming of either lucrative careers in the game, representing the country at the international level or taking admission into prestigious educational institutions through the sports quota! Talk about a game-changer, and Vysarpadi is a live example of it,” says Suma Ravi, Regional Director, Southern Region, CRY.

For the next few weeks, however, the entire slum, along with these kids, will be glued to the television, following a certain player called Nandha Kumar, who will be representing Delhi Dynamos FC in the Indian Super League.

Kumar, who is one of them, is living the dream that keeps the children in this slum awake every night. With the help of football, these children are rewriting their destinies, one goal at a time.

(Tanmoy Bhaduri is a freelance photojournalist.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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