Chennai: It was providence that saved Cuddalore’s future Indian women’s football stars from being engulfed by the giant tsunami wave on December 26, 2004.
While fate had not been lenient for these poor and orphan girls, December 26, 2004 was an exception.
âOn Saturdays and Sundays, the girls would meet in the stadium and then go to the beach to train. On the day of the tsunami, which was Sunday, the girls gathered at the stadium. But that day I had a job and asked them to go back to their orphanage, âS. Mariappan, soccer coach and physical director of Cuddalore Public Upper Secondary School, told IANS.
Mariappan retired as principal of a government upper secondary school.
âWe were training on the sand on the beach to strengthen our legs. That day at the last moment our coach had asked us to return to the hostel, canceling the training session on the beach. Then we saw people running and screaming that the sea had come in. We returned to the orphanage and there were a large number of people who were affected by the tsunami, âa player, who had represented India at international events, told IANS, preferring anonymity, citing his labor regulations.
âI had gone to school and was in the midst of paperwork when I felt the chair shake. Then I got a phone call from home asking if I was safe. I was told that the sea had overflowed and that people were running here and there, ârecalls the football coach.
Mariappan’s house was near the beach. First he went to his house and saw that everyone was safe, then he checked the safety of his family members.
âThen I went to the beach and helped the people affected by the wave and along the way I saw several bodies on the road. The giant wave had put huge fishing boats on top of the trees. The corpses were piled onto trucks and were buried near our school on a large scale. It took me almost a year to come out of this shock, âhe said.
Although the future stars of women’s football are safe, their loved ones were not so lucky as they were swallowed up by the tsunami wave.
âAt the government orphanage, children who had lost both parents or one of them and who came from extremely poor families were admitted. Some parents or guardians normally visit the girls once every two months. For some girls, no guardian came to visit them after the tsunami because they too perished, âadded Mariappan.
âFor example, the ‘chithappa’ of V. Vinitha (her father’s younger brother) supported her. But his family was swept away by the wave. Her mother is alive. But the girls took these things with courage, âhe said.
Vinitha had represented India at the AFC Women’s Asian Cup in Korea and the winning team of the South Asian Football Federation championship held in Pakistan in 2015-16.
Eleven girls coached by Mariappan had played for India and several more represented their state and universities.
Interestingly, he is not only a trainer but a tutor for several poor girls.
After passing class 12, children can no longer stay in the orphanage and must return to their parents or guardians. In view of their poor financial situation, higher education was almost excluded.
Seeing their predicament and not wanting to spoil their flourishing footballing talent, Mariappan decided to host the girls in his house first and when their numbers increased he rented a separate building and accommodated the girls.
The expenses were paid out of pocket and cash donations by good and kind people.
âTwo secretaries from St. Joseph’s College of Arts and Sciences in Cuddalore – Father Peter Rajendiran and Father I. Ratchagar – have agreed to admit the football players tuition-free,â the football coach said.
âA hotel owner, Durai Srinivasan, started giving all the girls playing football two hard-boiled eggs in the morning and non-vegetarian food in the evening. It took care of the girls’ food needs as I was not able to afford the kind of food the footballers need, âhe added.
âThat aside from S. Maneevannan, president of the Indira Gandhi Academy for Sports and Education, and has helped financially,â he added.
But how did the kickoff or the training of the girls start?
âWe saw the boys being coached by the coach. Then four of us approached Mariappan monsieur to ask him to teach us how to play football, âsaid an international player.
âI was surprised at the way the girls learned to play. They had watched the boys train and play and soak up the techniques. With the required permissions from the authorities, the girls were trained during the weekends, âsaid Mariappan.
Slowly the number of players increased.
âFor the first time in the history of the school, the women’s football team won the inter-school competition. Until then, poor girls were looked down upon by some teachers. After the victory, the attitude towards the girls changed, âhe recalls.
And in no time, seven girls played for the state team, and also participated in the national camp.
The girls brought laurels to their University of Thiruvalluvar by winning the All India Inter-University football title and also the South Zone Inter University title.
One of the stars is midfielder K. Indumathi, who has played several times for India and has also been captain of the Indian team.
âNot only on the football field, the girls excelled academically. Many of our interns are graduates and have completed their M.Phil. All the girls have completed their diplomas. Thank you to the two officials of the Saint-Joseph de Cuddalore College of Arts and Sciences, âadded Mariappan.
Many girls joined the Tamil Nadu police and some got married.