Football fever in Chennai — beyond the World Cup!

The players are aged 40 - 60 plus years, well past the prime of their professional playing careers. Yet they have not only kept their passion alive through the Phoenix Veterans FC, but are also trying to ensure a better future for the sport and native players.

If you happen to be in Chennai, visit the SDAT ground on a Saturday morning, and you will be greeted by an unusual but heartwarming sight! Seen playing football with the fervour of a youth who has just discovered the game is a group of former professional footballers, their ages ranging from 40 to over 60. You’ll find them rolling back the years with their slick passes and exchanging banter that stems from years of camaraderie.

Meet the members of the Phoenix Veterans FC, a club comprising players who have represented their country and the state at the highest level. Through the Veterans Club, founded in 2010, they have found a way to keep their passion for the sport alive.

Capturing the magic of their youth

“All our members have played at least for the Tamil Nadu state team. Most of us secured employment through sports quota. Some members like me have retired from our jobs while others are still working. The basic idea behind the club was to maintain discipline and continue to be active” says I Gandhi, 63, a defender who represented the Indian national team.

The weekly game allows the members to reconnect with the sport that has impacted their lives in a profound manner. Their friendships have also flourished as a result. “We meet and play regularly and that has helped us stay in touch with each other” says Janakiraman, 46. He played as a midfielder for the Tamil Nadu state team at various levels.

Paying it forward

The Veterans Club also acts as a catalyst in helping football reach the youth of the city. The club hosts two tournaments at the Under 13 and Under 15 level every year for participants from across the city. They also conduct summer camps and coaching classes throughout the year for children from marginalised and low-income communities. Some of the members run football coaching academies that help produce stars for the future. They also assist in the hosting of tournaments by securing infrastructure and sponsoring trophies.

“The sport has given us so much joy and happiness and we would like to pass it on to the kids. We recently conducted a four-day camp for 30 children from Chennai in Nazareth, Tuticorin. Nazareth is a football hub and the kids stayed there and we coached them on the game and played matches. There were also sessions on fitness and some time for relaxation and sightseeing,” said Gandhi.

Summer camp in Nazareth, Tuticorin

Current state

The players also lamented the state of the sport in the country. They shared the view that while the young footballers in the city are at par with youth in other nations in terms of talent, the unfavourable attitude towards sports in general and the lack of proper infrastructure and coaching results in talented players losing their way.

“In terms of talent. There is no deficit. But we need better grounds. Even for us veterans to play, there is hardly any public infrastructure that allows it. Even for practice and tournaments, we have had to scout for locations. Good turfs are the immediate need of the hour,” says Gandhi.

Looking ahead

The Veterans Club also plays against other former professionals and veterans’ clubs from across the state. There is an annual veterans’ tournament that allows them to pit their skills against each other and recapture the magic of their playing days. The members of Phoenix FC are also all set to participate in a South Asian Veterans Tournament in Brunei next month.

“Happiness, health and discipline are the reason we have formed the veterans club” says Janakiraman, who is employed with the Central Excise.

“Football has always been about the passion. Once we entered the field, there was only the game to focus on. There was not much money in the sport in our playing days. It has changed now at professional levels but it is still a struggle to get to that stage. But the signs are promising for the kids who have the talent and the right guidance,” says Gandhi.

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