Seven hundred children between the ages of eight and 15, from all across Tamil Nadu, took part in the 5th annual Great Goals championship

“Pass the ball da… Shoot, shoot, come on!” Eyes locked, the audience watched with bated breath as the players deftly passed a football around, weaving in and out of the opposing team, and eventually kicking it through the goal. This was not a screening of a FIFA World Cup or UEFA Champions League game; Chennai’s eight-year old aspiring footballers were competing in the 5th annual Great Goals event, one of the city’s largest soccer tournaments for children.

Conceptualised by Sandhya Rajan and Priya Gopalen — two mothers who were determined to support their children’s interest in the sport — the Great Goals Academy was founded in 2012, and offers structured football training at six locations across the city. Engulfed in a world of football, 700 kids aged between eight and 15 engaged in 124 fixtures over the weekend. As kids trooped in from Coimbatore, Neyveli and Sivaganga, wearing their pride high on the jerseys, the dusty grounds of YMCA bore witness to some phenomenal matches.

Chasing goals beyond the football field

Recognising the need for children to play at an early age, the under-8 category was introduced this year. Lanky, tanned boys — of the 700, only 15 were girls — expertly guided the ball with their feet. The tournament culminated in the under-15 final between Chennai City FC and Sabir Pasha Football Academy (SPFA). The men in green from SPFA, led by their captain K Rahul, triumphantly lifted the trophy for the third year in a row. Coached by Syed Sabir Pasha, the assistant coach of Chennaiyin FC, this Ambattur-based club has produced talent catering to Chennai’s premier clubs — some have even gone on to train for India at the national camp.

S Ramakrishan, assistant coach at the SPFA, and athlete for over 30 years, attributes the multiple victories to the determination and grit of the boys, who are on the field at 5.30am, sun or rain. However, the coach laments, “Although the city has seen a boost in the quality of football, the lack of spatial infrastructure in the city makes it incapable to host ISL (Indian Super League)-level matches. Most football grounds are located 50 kilometres away and it is important to identify locations that are more accessible,” he says.

Chasing goals beyond the football field

Flanked by doting parents and stern coaches, ambition coursed through the players’ veins. The event also recognised the best players in each team, giving all the kids something to take back. Sandhya and Priya make it clear that their aim is to impart learning in an engaging way, ensuring that their methodology focusses on child-friendly lessons. In its seventh year of inception, the programme is designed to teach discipline, respect and punctuality. “We believe that sports inculcates lifelong skills and character traits like willpower and integrity, which are useful for a growing child both on and off the field,” says Priya.

Amid selfies with cricketer K Srikkanth, who had come to give away prizes, it is obvious that the stars of the event were clearly its youngest players. Jumping ecstatically, Aadhiyan from National Sports School, Coimbatore, grinned as he received the Golden Boot award for maximum goals in the under-8 category. With chants of Messi, Neymar and Ronaldo ensuing, the kids contentedly follow him off the field — a ball at their feet, trophy in their hands and a goal beyond the one on the field.

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