When Slum Children Sports Talent and Education Development Society (SCSTEDS) entered the Chennai Football Association fourth division league in 2007, few would have imagined that the Vysarpadi-based club would be playing with the likes of Customs, Indian Bank and ICF in the city’s top tier five years later.
The journey of Steds — the name by which the club are commonly known — from the lowest division to the highest in the minimum possible time is nothing short of a fairy tale.
Steds qualified for the senior division by finishing second behind Hindustan Eagles in this season’s first division. The private team, formed in 2000 to wean slum children away from vices, gained promotion at the first time of asking in every division.
Not many teams in the league can boast of such a stellar no-break record. Like a juggernaut, they have demolished all the obstacles on their way to reach the pinnacle of Chennai football.
N. Thangaraj, who is running the club along with his brother N. Umapathi and C. Suresh Kumar, said he couldn’t describe his joy in words. “The feeling of reaching the senior division, which is a long-held dream for everybody at Steds, hasn’t sunk in yet. We are being treated like heroes in Vysarpadi. The players are thrilled at the prospect of sharing the field with Chennai’s biggest teams next season,” he added.
Thangaraj said Steds would forever be grateful to senior IAS officer R. Christodas Gandhi for his critical help in getting the club recognition with the CFA. Gandhi keeps tab of the club activities even today despite his hectic official work. Another person Thangaraj is indebted to is V. Nandakumar. “The Indian Revenue Service officer is an inspiration for us. He has been buying us kit from the fourth division. Nandakumar is part of the Steds family,” he added.
At Steds, Thangaraj said, football is being used as a tool to keep children on track at one of Chennai’s largest slums. “The chances for slum children to go astray are high. When we formed Steds 10 years ago, we wanted a healthy pursuit that would appeal to youngsters. Football came to our mind immediately because the game has always been a rage at Vysarpadi.
“With the help of philanthropic individuals we built Steds brick by brick. From the beginning we were careful not to allow the interference of religion or caste in our functioning. Even though there are difficulties in running the club, we are determined to march on,” he added.
According to Thangaraj, those who don’t go to school have no place at Steds. “Education is a must for the development of children. That’s why we run a night school in our area. What delights me more than our qualification to the senior division is the statistic that we have brought down school dropout rate at Vysarpadi. I will not be happy if Steds boys do well on the football ground and leave a lot to be desired off it. The primary aim of establishing Steds was to serve the society through football,” he said.
Almost all the players of Steds come from a poor background. “Most of their parents work as daily wage labourers. Poverty is a double-edged sword. It can either inspire youngsters to reach the top through hard work or lure them to a whole lot of vices. We are keeping our eyes and ears open all the time to ensure that none of our boys is going on the wrong route,” Thangaraj said.
Steds, whose roster was entirely made up of players groomed at the club, missed out on the first division championship only by a point. Dhilipan and Anandan shared the goal-scoring responsibilities admirably, bagging four each in the campaign. Both players attended a national U-17 camp recently. Dhilipan’s football talent has taken him to a handful of foreign countries. The youngster, many experts attest, is marked for greater achievements.
Life in the senior division is going to be difficult for Steds because a bigger budget is needed to field a competitive team. Even though Thangaraj is aware of the challenges, he is confident that hard work and discipline will see his club through.
“We don’t have the money to sign top players. We will only rely on players trained at Steds. Maybe we need a couple of experienced hands to steady the ship in times of crisis. We will fight all the way to remain in the senior division. The boys are so enthusiastic that they can’t wait to start our preparations for next year’s league,” Thangaraj said.