By Jose Kurian
Nilgiris (Tamil Nadu), Nov 3 (IANS/ 101Reporters) With the Indian Super League and FIFA U-17 Womens World Cup underway in the country, it is not difficult to see the transformative rise of Indian football in less than a decade.
State teams and clubs have sprung up, providing excellent opportunities to budding football players to showcase their talents. Such a sports club in the agrarian hamlet of Erumad in the Nilgiris has provided a fillip to the careers of rural youth in the region.
Every year, over 100 students, including girls and tribals, get trained under the aegis of Yuvathara Sports Club. Started in the 1980s by local football enthusiasts, Yuvathara is a popular name among the football clubs in the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu and the neighbouring districts of Kerala.
CS Sabeeth is an example of the club's scintillating performance. "My exposure to football through my father, a key member of Yuvathara, helped me carve out a niche in the Indian football team (Under 23)," says Sabeeth (32), also a former player for Kolkata-based Mohun Bagan.
Hailing from an agricultural family, Sabeeth started learning the game at a young age. Once a Santosh Trophy player, his father C A Sathyan (62) is the former captain of Tamil Nadu Police team. "It was the exhaustive training and dedication of team members at Yuvathara that moulded me into an Indian team member," says Sabeeth.
Sabeeth plays for Kolkata club ASOS Rainbow now and is employed as an auditor at the Accountant General's office there.
The learning curve
According to Sathyan, Yuvathara's special training helped him get through the rigorous police recruitment process. "Once I got selected, we fine-tuned the training programme to get the players accustomed to a strenuous schedule. This assisted many youngsters in clearing civil services examinations, especially of the police department," he explains.
Now retired from service, Sathyan and friends are devising better ways to promote sports in the region. In 2018, Yuvathara joined hands with the Nilgiri College of Arts and Science to set up the Nilgiri College Sports Academy (NCSA).
"The institution provides scholarships to over 40 students. Those who excel in football and other sports get free education at the arts and science college, helping them get ahead both in their career and passion," says Sathyan.
Shaheer CR's journey as a goalkeeper stands as a testament to what the group in Erumad has been working towards. Son of truck driver Riaz Thenakkal, Shaheer (24) was picked up first by Kerala's Kovalam FC. He now plays for Juggernaut FC, Ahmedabad.
Speaking to 101Reporters, he says, "I completed my graduation and postgraduation in English literature on a sports scholarship. Fresh opportunities, which were not available earlier, have come as a boon for young footballers, especially in the wake of the new-found popularity of league matches. Football is finally getting the recognition it deserves."
According to Shaheer, many players have been absorbed by football teams of police, railways and State governments, besides corporations and companies such as SBI, Air India, HAL, ONGC, Mahindra & Mahindra and Oil India.
Notably, 12 players from the academy have been selected to represent various state football teams in the country.
Girl power to the fore
One of the rising stars of the NCSA is Sanjana K, who got selected to the women's team's training camp of Gokulam FC, a noted club in Kozhikode, Kerala.
The former U-23 India Mini Football Team captain, Sanjana joined the academy as a psychology student and is heading its first-ever football team. "Initially, the team had only four or five girls. Soon, more joined in. Our team of 20 quickly bonded and we were ready in eight days for a tournament. We are a team of beginners, but we have put up a good show so far."
Sanjana hopes to inspire more girls from rural areas to the sport. "In my village, I never got a chance to play. The boys would keep me as a ball girl, saying they would let me play if I fetch the ball. This new opportunity is a welcome change. It helps me immensely."
Children aged between eight and 22 years can apply for the training programme at Yuvathara. According to Sathyan, all applicants are selected, but for the best of the pool, another screening is held. Visiting players from football clubs lead the screening, along with experts from Yuvathara and the NCSA.
"With football ground, turf, dormitory and boarding facilities, the academy ensures that outstanding talent in sports is attracted to the campus," he says.
Sariul Varghese, the head of the physical education department at the Nilgiri College of Arts and Science and an NCSA trainer, tells 101Reporters that the players deliver the best results once they get better opportunities. Varghese is a former player of Calicut University team.
According to Rashid Gazaali, the managing director of Nilgiri College of Arts and Science, young footballers have managed to find their space in national avenues even when standard facilities were not available to them. "So, we have a strong belief that by providing the right infrastructure and best-in-class training, we will enable the rural youth to tap the globally emerging opportunities in the world of sports," he hopes.
(Jose Kurain is a Wayanad-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)