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The wrongful death of young football talent Priya is bringing attention to other young women footballers like her. They too come from meagre means and have overcome the stranglehold of social mores to follow their passion.
For these women from North Chennai, a metonym for squalor and poverty in the public imagination, football is not a hobby but their raison d’etre. They have neither tracksuits nor shoes required for the sport; not even an exclusive playground. What’s more, they cannot even afford the proper nutrition that sportspersons need. Yet, they train and practise daily, nurturing their dreams and hopes.
Some of these youngsters from Vyasarpadi are students of Quaid-e-Millath Government College in Anna Salai.
“I’ve been playing football for over 12 years,” Monisha, who is in the third year of an undergraduate course, says. Bereaved of her father at a young age, Monisha has had only her mother for support. When she was in school, Monisha took part in district and state-level football tournaments.
For these women from North Chennai, football is not a hobby but their raison d’etre. They have neither tracksuits nor the shoes required for the sport; not even an exclusive playground. What’s more, they cannot even afford proper nutrition
“I was in class 6 when I asked my mom for football shoes, a jersey and a ball,” Monisha says. Her single mother was struggling to make ends meet. “But she mortgaged her jewels and bought me the things I need,” Monisha says, her eyes glistening with teardrops.
“I am a passionate fan of Christiano Ronaldo. I am always bowled over by his amazing skills of scoring goals by overhead kick or bicycle kick,” she says. “I often try to imitate his style,” she adds, coyly. “He is my role model.”
The determination is marked in her words.
Vasanthi, an athlete, who completed her school education with the help of an NGO, clinched the second prize in the 200m race at the international athletic competitions held in Nepal last month. After joining college, she has set her sights on football.
Several other young women, Yamuna, Janani, Jeevapriya, Arthi and Haripradha, too are into football. Their parents, who are low-wage labourers such as domestic helps, street vendors, auto drivers and so on, are stretching themselves in order to nurture their children’s dreams.
After training sessions, these young footballers don’t get to fortify themselves with nutritional foods or drinks. Water is all they have. Yet the intensity of their pursuit of football is never watered down.
H Noor Basha and L Umashankar are coaches actively engaged in the mission of moulding the best footballers. While football academies in more upscale locations charge Rs 2,500 a month for training, these coaches do it free of cost at government playgrounds for the students from poor and lower middle class families. There are many other expenses, however, that the footballers must meet on their own, especially when they get the opportunity to participate in district, state and national tournaments.
Noor Basha is a D Licence Football Coach and Category 3 Referee who works as the PE teacher at KRMM school. Talking about the plight of the young women from poor families, he says, “It is an act of humanity to train such girls who can’t afford fruits, eggs and other nutritional sources. They may be able to land some government jobs later (on sports quota) and thereby overcome poverty.”
Poverty can really dash one’s dreams to the ground. That’s what happened with Soumiya. Though she was selected for an international tournament, Soumiya could not make it because she did not have the Rs 90,000 required for the event. Now she has given up on her dreams and settled into married life. Money was not the only issue, Soumiya and other women players like her have to also contend with opposition from relatives, criticism over the dress code, and several other issues, says Noor Basha.
“Even though the girls have shone in national and international tournaments, they find it difficult to get government recognition here in Tamil Nadu, whereas neighbouring states recognise and reward athletes and sportspersons
“Now after Priya’s death, the parents of sportswomen are feeling jittery. They say they are not well off enough to meet medical emergencies, if any, in the sports career of their daughters. It takes a lot of persuasion with such parents to make them send their daughters to the playground,” Noor Basha adds.
Umashankar, a national level football referee, works as the football coach at Quaid-e-Millath college. “Even though the girls have shone in national and international tournaments, they find it difficult to get government recognition here in Tamil Nadu, whereas neighbouring states recognise and reward athletes and sportspersons,” he says. He calls upon the government to aid students from poor and middle-class families who are interested in sports and games, to nurture them into internationally recognisable stars.
India is nowhere in the FIFA world cup, remaining just a spectator. Does it mean that India does not have football talent? No. The country has latent talent in students like Priya all over the landscape. What the government needs to do is to identify promising footballers and other athletes, nurture and groom them. Then international cups such as the FIFA world cup will come within the reach of the country, the coaches say.
That would be the best homage that could be paid to Priya, who has left behind her dreams to be fulfilled by succeeding generations.
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