Villa Fiorita of Chennai

Print edition : July 17, 2009
in Chennai

J. Elangovan, coach and co-owner of the YMSC, with his boys at a football camp at the KP Park ground near Pulianthope.-R. RAGU

IF tattoos announce a fans ultimate devotion, the Young Mens Social Club (YMSC) at Pulianthope in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, can boast of an ardent one. C.P. Chittarasu, 50, a casual labourer, has the letters Y-M-S-C etched on his forehead. His association with the club goes back 15 years, when J. Elangovan, who played football for Chennai Customs, started coaching children in the urban slum. Every morning, Chittarasu, along with the likes of E. Muthazhagan and Nagappan, made the rounds of the boys homes to wake them up, at times sprinkling water on their sleepy faces, and helped the coach with odd jobs at the playground at the Kesava Pillai (KP) Park near the Slum Clearance Board tenements. The chores included cleaning the playground, which became a public toilet at night. The YMSC is now a name to be reckoned with in the professional football circuit in Chennai, invoking passions in people such as Chittarasu. Three years ago, he had the clubs acronym tattooed on his body.

Many others in Pulianthope have the name firmly etched in their minds. The club has helped dozens of youth set a goal in their lives and achieve it, heralding a revolution of sorts.

Elangovan, 45, and his partner Rajendra Prasad took over the reins of the four-decade-old club from one Wilbert Jaikaran in 1994. They put their resources together to buy footballs and boots for the poor slum children who came for training. At times they even bought them food. Otherwise some of the children would have gone to bed without a meal.

When we began, the team was in the fifth division of the Chennai Football Association. Now it plays in the super division, says Rajendra Prasad, who played for the Netaji Sports Club and Central Excise before taking up a job at the Chennai Port Trust in 1991. That means a promotion from the lowest to the highest league. As the YMSC began to rise from obscurity, the duo bought another club, called Dinamani (which has since been renamed Chennai Soccer Club), in 2000. One year, both the YMSC and Dinamani reached the super division. At least 20 players from both clubs make it to the major clubs and leagues every year.

Players who kicked their first ball at KP Park are now playing in the Chennai league, in nationals, and in clubs such as the Mohammaden Sporting Club, says Elangovan, reeling off their names. Pride of place goes to Jothi Kumar, whom the Mohammadens signed up. Then there are Kanagaraj, who works and plays for the Tamil Nadu Police; Suman of the Integral Coach Factory; Ramesh, Prem, Kumaran, Reghu, Madan and Karthik, who play for Chennai Customs (some of them are employed there); and a host of guest players of Central Excise, Indian Bank, Netaji Sports Club, the Reserve Bank and the Chennai Port Trust.

One of them is K. Sakthivel, a school dropout. Rajendra Prasad recalls the day, 14 years ago, when Sakthivel walked into the park, barefoot and wearing a State Bank jersey, a gift from one of the players to the ballboy.

He gave the boy Rs.50 to buy a pair of shoes. (The club insists that everyone wear boots to play.) Sakthivel ran to Moore Market where you get almost anything second-hand and bought a pair of canvas shoes. (A known flea market, Moore Market was destroyed by a fire in 1985, but even to this day there are wayside traders selling anything from electronic goods to used footwear.)

As a goalkeeper, Sakthivel made it to the junior nationals in 2002, played the Under-21s in 2003, and represented Tamil Nadu in the National Games in 2007. He is now a guest player for Chennai Customs. Pune FC apparently offered to sign him up, but he could not join the club; pressing problems at home were not so easy to deflect as balls from the goalpost.

Sakthivel, now 26, plies a rickshaw for a living. There is little doubt that he represents the youth of Pulianthope whose lives would have been wasted but for the YMSC.

I was a nobody; now I have an address, he says, sitting cross-legged against a life-size painting of Diego Maradona that hangs on a wall in the players dressing room. Before kicking off to a good life, the legendary star himself grew up in the slums of Villa Fiorita near Buenos Aires in Argentina where he shared a room with seven siblings.

Hope runs high in the one-room apartment in Periyar Nagar of the Slum Clearance Board building where M. Ramesh, who is popularly known as Kutti, and his five siblings grew up. He was selected to this years Tamil Nadu team for the Santosh Trophy national competition; the team reached the semi-finals. His father, V. Maraimuthu, who retired from the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board as a line inspector, takes out a folder full of newspaper clippings in Tamil, English and Hindi about Kutti and talks excitedly about his own passion for football and his sons achievements.

Kutti quit school after 10th but had started playing when he was about 12. Later, he joined Dinamani and then played for Indian Bank. Maraimuthu says Kutti is one of the many whom Elangovan has helped with pocket money to go on tours or to buy football kits. He now works and plays for Chennai Customs. Only because of football has my son got a job when even the educated do not have one, says Maraimuthu.

Parthiban, another Elangovan protege, also found a place in the Santosh Trophy team. Three more boys, R. Nirmal Kumar, M. David and Kanagaraj, made the YMSC proud by making it to the final round of the selection.

Elangovan is everything to them: coach, mentor, benefactor, friend, guide, and their beloved Anna (elder brother) who gave them a leg up. Hailing from Madhavaram near Chennai, Elangovan was born to teacher parents and got their full support in his passion for football. At 19, he landed a job in the Customs. He says he wanted to help others as he himself was gainfully employed thanks to football.

That the boys of Pulianthope, like slum children everywhere, had taken to football in a big way came in handy for Elangovan. He fondly remembers the services rendered by coaches such as Kannan and Sabir Pasha in the early years. Kannan, a yesteryear national player of fame, has made Kolkata his home. Sabir Pasha, who is currently the coach for Indian Bank, was a national team player. They taught the boys the nuances of the game and told them inspiring stories about great footballers, a couple of whose paintings adorn the walls of the clubs dressing room.

Parthiban with his father, Muthazhagan, at the YMSC. He played for Tamil Nadu in the Santosh Trophy national tournament. (Right) Ramesh alias Kutti, who was also selected for the Santosh Trophy team of Tamil Nadu.-SAMUEL ABRAHAM

Alongside the pictures of footballing greats are two small portraits, of Mother Teresa and E.V. Ramasamy Periyar. A non-believer by conviction, Elangovan says they are gods in human form. They lived for the very downtrodden in society and served people without caring for the colour of their skin, caste, creed or language, he says. Over the years, that has become his philosophy too.

Anna too has done a lot for poor people through football, says D. Immanuel, who has been working as the treasurer of the YMSC for the past two years. Elangovan has picked gems from the garbage.

For the past five years, Elangovan has been conducting free summer camps to cut and polish these rough, uncut jewels. The 45-day camp that ended on June 6 this year was attended by 250 boys, aged from six to 25. The camp is complete with a fitness trainer (Benjamin Bernard) and refreshments bread, butter and jam, bananas and milk for the boys to boot.

Elangovan and Rajendra Prasad ran the two clubs for the past 14 years practically alone. But after their philanthropy made it to the news, help has been forthcoming from some quarters. They are grateful to A. Balaji, Superintendent of Customs, for his generous support. But the cash-strapped clubs are looking for sponsors.

On the field, Elangovan puts the boys through a tough workout. His exacting standards of discipline, too, are legendary. Punctuality is the norm, and smoking and drinking are a strict no-no.

First we learn discipline, then the game, says S. Sathish Kumar, 14, a student of the Adi Dravidar Government Welfare High School at Pulianthope. (Adi Dravidar is a term used to denote Dalits.) He lost his parents, and stays with his uncle. Sathish has been practising under Elangovan for three years. Recently, he attended the Ma Foi Foundations Disha Championship scheme sports talent identification and summer coaching camp. Vijay N., 14, is another promising player who attends Elangovans camp. They have their goals set high: to play for the Indian team.

The YMSC has a loftier aim too. There was no school here, no education, Elangovan says. Football has given the boys a goal in their lives. They now want to excel in games and in studies. He insists on their going to school. The result is there for all to see. Immanuel says that all except a handful of boys among the 250 boys who attended the camp this year were school-going. The YMSC is trying to coax even these dropouts to go back to school, he says. In 2000, just 20 per cent of those who came for training attended school. Says Immanuel: Our motto is to make children grow and develop with football and education, which play a vital role for a bright future. Only football can change this area.

Pulianthope would be any politicians delight for the sheer number of its votes. The 2.5-square-kilometre area has an estimated two lakh people. K. Murugan, area president of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), says there are 19,000 people (8,000 voters) in 35 blocks in KP Park alone. Nearly 30 per cent of them are youth. But education has never been a priority here; just around 5 per cent of the residents have had an education beyond Class X, says Murugan. (The State has a literacy rate of 73.47 per cent, according to 2001 figures.) The nearest college is 8 km away, but mentally it is much more distant. The success of a local boy who completed his MBBS degree recently is the stuff legends are made of.

Obviously, an achievement of this type is a Herculean task for the children of casual labourers and manual scavengers (of the Dalit Arundhatiyar community), who form 60 per cent of the population. They live in cramped Slum Clearance Board tenements, which came up 33 years ago. Just about 2 per cent are government employees, and that too in low-paying jobs, says Murugan.

Sports and games often provided the only source of entertainment in an otherwise hopeless situation. This perhaps opened a space for Elangovan. The potential of football to inculcate discipline and break down social barriers brought parents in droves to the club. A few years ago, there was little support from the local people, but of late there has been a growing response after they came to know how football can change their childrens lives for the better, says Elangovan.

Akash S., 14, a Class X student from Sowcarpet, has been playing football from the age of three. His father, Sudarshan, a casual labourer, regularly helps out at the club. Muthazhagan, 50, who works in a ration shop, has never missed a day at the ground at 6 a.m. for years. His efforts have not gone in vain; Parthiban, his son, was selected for the Santosh Trophy team.

Sakthivel at the YMSC.-SAMUEL ABRAHAM

Perhaps it is no better time than now to be aspiring to play football. There are the home-grown success stories of Baichung Bhutia and Sunil Chetri, small-town boys who are weaving magic and making a fortune with their feet. The game is slowly regaining its lost glory in the country (India will play in the Asia Football Cup in 2011 in Doha after a gap of 24 years) and attracting more sponsorships, though not as much as cricket.

Like the story of football everywhere, football in Chennai has traditionally been associated with the working class. British Madras consisted of Fort St. George where the whites lived and the walled Black Town around it where the natives lived. Pulianthope falls in the erstwhile Black Town area in north Madras. Those who know the area well say that Pulianthope, which literally means tamarind grove, was called marunthu kidangu (gunpowder storage area) as well. In the olden days, the area was used to store gunpowder because of its low population. It became a hub of activity with the beginning of industrialisation in Chennai. The Buckingham and Carnatic Mills, popularly known as the B and C Mills, once employed 14,000 people, says G. Murali, 30, a graphics designer and a short-film director. He has been doing a lot of research on the area for Thotti (slaughterhouse), Pokkisham (treasure) and a third film in the making, all on north Madras.

There was a great divide, he says, between the north and south Madras regions. When the sturdy young men who came to north Madras from the villages to work in the foundries, the coach factory, and the mills took to games such as football, boxing and kabbadi in a big way, people in south Madras played cricket, tennis, table tennis, and so on.

Football, which came to India with the British, got the patronage of missionaries, too, who believed that sporting values were imperative for the mental and spiritual development of the youth. The Don Bosco Youth Centre, whose aim is to promote cultural, sporting and social activities for young people, is another pillar of football in the area.

More and more people started taking up the sport when players began to get jobs. The disciplined life of the players also got emulated, says Murali. All this slowly paved the way for club football in the area.

There are lots of players here who can make it to the Indian team. We have manpower, physical power, but no exposure, he says, acknowledging Elangovan and the YMSC for doing precisely that. He believes that social problems are also fewer now because there is a positive outlet for emotions.

Crickets popularity, too, is obvious in Pulianthope nowadays. Just about 500 metres from the football ground is the Corporation park where hundreds of boys mill around with cricket bat and ball. To harness youth power, the DYFI recently conducted a cricket tournament, in which 18 teams participated. The sheer number of teams made the organisers limit the overs to 10 an innings. Some 2,000 people saw the matches.

That is perhaps indicative of changing times. But nothing can take away the charm of football from Pulianthope as you see a little boy in a red jersey, unmindful of the hustle and bustle of an overcrowded alley, or the nauseating stench that wafts from the nearby garbage dumping yard, starts playing with his prized possession: a football.

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