CHENNAI:Until last month, Sumitra and Aparna had a concerning situation at their workplace. Some of their students weren’t listening to them. Natural, one might think, for every teacher will have problematic kids in their class. Except the two 23-year-olds aren’t exactly teachers. They’re football coaches at the Raman Vijayan Soccer School, an academy run by former international footballer, Raman Vijayan. And the kids weren’t listening to them because they were women. ‘What do women know of football’, they would ask. In the case of these two particular women, quite a bit. Both Sumitra and Aparna were part of the Tamil Nadu women’s team that had created history by emerging national champions less than a month ago.
A good amount of fuss was made when the team won the trophy, for it came completely out of the blue. In its two decade history, Tamil Nadu had made the semifinals just once. When Tamil Nadu bested Manipur in the finals this year, the victory was rightly hailed. But the euphoria over a war well fought faded just as fast as it had risen, with little light shed on the minor battles that every player was fighting — and winning — on a daily basis. Battles like the one Sumitra and Aparna fight every day with their students.
The average age of the team was 21. There’s a reason why, says M Muruhuvendan, the coach of the team. Most girls are married off when they are 23-24, and are expected to quit football. “Only the ones that get a job through the sports quota carry on playing,” says Muruhuvendan. “Here, only the Tamil Nadu police have a hiring quota for femalefootballers. So, some very promising players end up quitting the game in their early twenties.”
Just before the nationals, Muruhuvendan prepared for the worst when one of his best players, 21-year-old Geetanjali told him she had got engaged. A resident of Avadi, Geetanjali’s passion for the game was such that she commuted far every day for the 6 am practice, and also juggled studies and a part-time job. The thought of her quitting was deeply distressing for Muruhuvendan. His fears, though, were unfounded. “I was never going to quit football,” Geetanjali laughs. “I agreed to get married only after the groom’s family were okay with me continuing football.” Before her marriage in September, Geetanjali has another big date in her calendar. Later this month, she will line up for Sethu FC in the Indian Women’s League.
For Malavika, Soundarya and Nandini, football was a way to get out. In the villages of Salem, where the trio are from, women have a set script to follow. Complete their schooling, a college education if lucky and get married. And this would have been their fate too, had it not been for football. All three come from underprivileged backgrounds. Like most girls who try to gain admission into a sports hostel in their early teens, the three were lured by the free food and schooling that would come with it. But football has given them so much more. All three are now close to completing their degrees at the Ethiraj college in Chennai. Malavika, a BA Economics student, now dreams of getting into the police via the sports quota, where her salary would dwarf what both her parents bring home together. She also dreams of pulling on an India shirt. After the nationals triumph, both are within reach.
Back at Raman Vijayan Soccer School, things are much better for Sumitra and Aparna these days. The belligerent kids no longer question them, but look up to them with awe. “All of a sudden, we are the most respected coaches at the academy,” Sumitra laughs.The perks of being champions of India!