From the streets of Chennai to soccer in Scotland : Sangeetha's fairytale

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From the streets of Chennai to soccer in Scotland : Sangeetha's fairytale

She was born and brought up on the streets, and her dad left them for good. She left home for her first football match with 5 rupees–now she represents India at the Homeless World Cup in Scotland.

It's 4:00 PM on an overcast day, but the sweltering heat of Chennai is making its presence felt nevertheless as we set up shop at the Corporation playground. The grounds are a clean oasis after the earlier navigation through narrow alleys strewn with broken glass, overflowing sewage, and the occasional old lady who had decided to spend the afternoon out in the open. The speakers from across the grounds, which had been airing 'Kabaali' at hallucination-inducing noise levels for a wedding gathering, have given us a brief window– “only for some time” they had said when we had requested. Meanwhile, just in time, Sangeetha slowly laces up her boots, and walks over to us.

She starts speaking almost at the word 'go'. “I am Sangeetha. I am studying in 12th std. I live near Chennai Central in Walltax road. On Walltax road,” she says. It takes a moment for that to sink even as I ask a drawn out “as in?”. She calmly repeats, “I live on the street”.

She shows no hint of nerves in front of the camera or the motley bunch of people gathered–some curious kids, other players, and one or two who had drunkenly ambled over after the end of the impromptu 'Dappankuthu' from the wedding. Public speaking must be a cakewalk after having lived in the full glare of the city since she was born. “My dad left us long time back. My mom and elder sister are the ones who have taken care of the family. My sister, in particular, is the reason why I am here. After my mom had an eye operation, my sister has been the bread-earner for all of us - me, mother, and my two brothers,” she says.

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Two years back, she had been picked by Slum Soccer after trials held to find promising talent from among the Chennai slums. Sangeetha proudly talks about how she has been regular and has persevered, while all the other girls dropped out. She is barely able to conceal the excitement at going to Scotland. “I did not expect to be picked. I was just playing regularly, and one day they told me I am going. I had not left Madras, in fact not even my neighborhood until these people took me under their program,” she says. “Does she know where Scotland is?”. She lets out a short laugh before saying, “We do not have a map. How would I find out where it is?”.

Life has become an enjoyable routine says Sangeetha. “Nowadays, I go to school, then come to practice, then go “home”. That's all I do every day. I don't particularly enjoy studying. All I want to do is play football. So I study because I have to,” she says.

Life was, however, not always so simple for her. Her father had left them years back after the family had grown into six members. When he left, her mother was working in a small steel vessel manufacturing unit, and that income was never going to be enough. Her sister had to drop out from her 8th std to support the family. “She is like a second mother to me. I don't know where we would be without her. She still goes to work to support all of us. When I need money for football, she is the one who gets loans from her company,” says Sangeetha.

But the family faced intense scrutiny from society when Sangeetha stepped out with football studs. Some said girls should not be allowed to play. Some asked what was the point in sending her to school even, she recalls. But her mother stood firm. “Why is it that only boys should play sports. In my family, even the girls will have the opportunities. In fact, my girls are going to bring honour to my family more than my boys,” she said defending Sangeetha's budding passion.

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The first time she had to go outside to play, her mother had been excited along with her. But when the day arrived, her mother had been taunted for sending her daughter out “like a boy”, and she had refused to send Sangeetha to play. Unfazed, Sangeetha managed to slip out and took a bus with just 5 rupees on her.

When her mom heard the news, she was furious and refused to take her back when she returned. “But then I took out the 'Best player' award, and mom was so delighted. She took it to everyone in the street and was beaming all day. That was the last time she stopped me. Now if I do not feel like going for practice, she pushes me to go play. She wants me to make it big here and wants it more than me”.

Recounting her life before she came to love football, Sangeetha says, “I was quite the tomboy back then. I would hang out only with the boys, and would bully the other girls. I would play games only with them. I used to gamble a lot. But, now I have realized that this is true sport. I have completely moved away from them.

“Do her classmates know that she is going to represent India?”. She says, “No. Only my close friends know. I have not told the others because they would think I am a show-off,” she smiles sheepishly.

Support for the youngster has come from some unexpected quarters. She almost tearfully recollects how her “Muslim friend's mother” has been a bedrock of support for her. “She loves me and cares for me because I am a street-kid. When she heard that I was going to represent India, she took me to all her neighbours and told them one by one about me. How many people would do that for someone else's kid? It showed me that there are so many good people in this world”.

Sangeetha is not too keen to study after her 12th std. “I really am not interested in studying. The only reason I am studying is because my mom wants me. The people who live in the houses on our street look at us and used to say what is the point in people like me going to school. What will these people accomplish? My mother wants to prove them wrong. She wants me to get a good score. I was careless in my 10th and got only 350 out of 500. But now she wants me to get 1100 out of 1200 in 12th. I am aiming for 1200 because only then I can get at least close to 1100”.

However much the faithful have reviled the ISL, it appears to have touched lives in this far corner of the country. Talk to any youngster in the ground, and he talks about his experiences watching the ISL at the Nehru stadium and how much they love their Chennaiyin FC. For a state that has had no roots in football, the beautiful sport has come finally, and in a big way. Mendoza, who led Chennaiyin to the title this year, appears to be the crowd favorite. Graffiti adorns the wall at the far side of the ground, and you see Mendoza scrawled across it as the kids take shots at the wall. “I love Messi and Ronaldo, but more than them I like to watch Mendoza play,” gushes Sangeetha.

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Football has certainly made a difference to Sangeetha, her teammates, and to a lot more kids in this slum. There is this perky kid who leads us back out of the neighborhood. Halfway through, he tells me he is going for the U-12 world cup in Spain! And he quickly replies that it is in Europe when I ask him. As we reach our way out through the snaking maze of the slum onto the road, I could not help but wonder how much football has helped and will help these kids make their own way out of this slum.

These Indian kids can create footballing history, but they need your help. You can help Slum Soccer send 20 of our most talented footballers to represent INDIA at the Homeless World Cup at Glasgow. Click here to know more

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