The Goals of Chennai’s Football Community

Circa 2018. It’s a Saturday evening. Manchester United vs Arsenal is being screened. The crowd roars. Muffled cheers are heard from the room. There is a rap at the door. “It’s a part-time job!” they scream over the cursing and rambling as Arsenal scores another goal.

Bernaud Thomson and Harrison (Harry) James Nelson were friends since school, united by their obsession with football and Manchester United. “Bernie here, used to be team captain back in school!” Harrison points at Bernaud who took up a banking job after college. Harrison on the other hand pursued sports more seriously and opened a multi-sporting facility called Aadukalam in Royapuram.

Though the two took very different paths after school, their passion for football always brought them together. The Manchester United fans, now in their thirties, were married and had children. The family responsibilities made watching matches increasingly difficult. “Both of our wives work during the week so our families would want to relax during the weekend,” Harry explains. “Saturday and Sunday evenings! Exactly when the match is telecasted,” Bernaud exclaims.

Watching football soon became a luxury. “Let’s pretend this is work and not selfish entertainment,” they thought when they decided they would start a watch-along. For those of you, like me, who aren’t aware of the realm of European Football—it is a religion of its own. Every club has its own WhatsApp group. During a match, the group is bombarded with at least three thousand messages.

 

The duo was pleased with their brilliant idea. They would grab snacks and drinks, and head to their friend’s studio. The studio had a corner with football posters and a table where they would shoot their Tamil commentary as they watched the match on a screen in front of them. ‘Football Makkal’ (as they called themselves back in the day) live-streamed their watch-along on YouTube.

The YouTube channel effortlessly gathered a community of thirty people. The small online community was not only actively involved during the watch-along but would call them out with a sense of entitlement every time they skipped a game. Along the way ‘Football Makkal’ was renamed to ‘Football Makka’—a more informal term of endearment (similar to dude or machaan).

During one of their commentary sessions at the studio, their friend suggested that they do commentary for local matches in Chennai. The duo dipped their toes in expansion by hosting a short exhibition match at Harry’s facility in Royapuram. “Bernaud brought a team from his neighbourhood and I invited a team I knew,” Harry recollects as they burst out laughing, “We were sitting in the commentary box with mics overlooking the field while a phone camera live-streamed the game.”

The response and engagement superseded their expectations. The twenty participants had shared the event across their networks—around the globe. “Up till now my family and friends have only seen me take my boots and claim to play. This was the first time they got to watch me,” one of them said as the match ended. That was when it dawned upon them that even though football was an integral part of their childhood, no one had watched them play either.

In that moment of realisation, Harry and Bernaud saw that they were standing on something bigger than themselves. They gathered a young team who were enthusiastic about the sport and knew the local teams and their players. Football Makka was going to become a platform to encourage and showcase young players from around Chennai. The team organised more friendly matches—this time experimenting with camera angles while live-streaming from a phone.

Their friend from the studio noticed the increasing popularity of the exhibition matches and instigated the duo to conduct competitive matches. Just as they began diving deeper into the realm of professional football in the state, they realised that the profession barely existed. “The most professional football players from our state train for the ISL (Indian Super League), which only takes place for three months,” they say with disappointment stating that most of the players are only part-time in the profession. There aren’t enough league matches to promote the sport. It is inevitable for these players to seek a full-time job in government offices as the sport does not account for a reliable means of livelihood.

Ironically, football dates back to being a popular traditional sport in Tamil Nadu. Today, there are around 93 registered teams (about five hundred including the amateur teams) just from Chennai. However, India’s historic win at the 1983 World Cup brought cricket to the limelight leaving most other local sports largely forgotten.

“Sevens Football is a popular part of Karaikudi’s temple festival,” divulges Bernaud as he points out that it has been a part of Tamil culture for a while. They discuss trivia about the local roots of the sport—all of which they have accumulated since the inception of Football Makka. “We were too clouded by European football to notice the talent we had around us,” they confess.

Harry and Bernaud were ready to make some real impact and organised the first edition of Porkkalam—a competitive league match. This time, they ensured to abide by the rules of international professional guidelines to inculcate an air of seriousness around the sport.

“There are predefined business models for hosting competitive matches involving entree fees, turf charges and prize money,” Harry explains, “We did not want to go there.” Porkkalam was meant to uplift the sport. As a result, turfs came forward to support the cause by providing their space free of charge. This enabled Football Makka to scrap the entry fee for the matches.

The six-month event was abruptly brought to an end in two months with the COVID pandemic. However, the league matches were a raging success.

During the break, Harry and Bernaud would ideate ways to take the second edition of Porkkalam to the next level. After all, Football Makka started as a football media company. They identified and interviewed coaches and created a ten-episode series on how to become a professional football player.

The series attracted an opportunity they could not refuse. Football Makka was offered the chance to be the first-ever media company to telecast the Tamil Nadu Women’s league.

“We immediately signed the papers but we were barely equipped. We couldn’t broadcast a match at Nehru Stadium with a phone as we did before,” they laugh as they recollect collaborating with Chennai-based wedding photography company, Studio Sigi, to live stream the match. Although the Tamil Nadu women’s team was among the top four in India, the team was close to obscure before the telecast.

Football Makka, now with close to 6K followers on YouTube, was seen as a catalyst to the football community that was thriving in silence for generations. The goal was in plain sight. Football Makka would have to convince corporations that the sport had a large market in order to create a career around it.

“Reliance funds the ISL,” reveal the co-founders, “We obviously do not have that kind of money to start with.” Instead, they would upgrade the second edition of Porkkalam by inviting artists, creators, musicians and other popular creatives and assigning them to teams. “We created a barter system of sorts,” explains Harry, “They would support and drive their league with their art and in return expand their audience.” The initiative would enable mutual growth for art and the sport.

Chennai-based streetwear brand, Angi Clothing partnered with the platform to design jerseys for the eight teams. Studio Sigi reduced the production charges for the broadcast. Decathlon sponsored forty match balls. The Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu (SDAT) provided them with the Nehru Stadium at a subsidised rate. Eventually, Porkkalam had a crowded banner with eight main sponsors, twenty-five team sponsors and five tournament sponsors. Everyone seemed to come together out of goodwill for the sport.

The ongoing second edition league match has marked a new milestone for Football Makka on their journey towards bringing football to the limelight in Tamil Nadu. “We are focusing on three pillars,” Bernaud lists, “Player welfare, official welfare and team welfare.” While the players are insured and paid a stipend the officials also receive a rating that they can add to their resume.

“We have only managed to shine a light on twelve teams,” say the founders as they paint a picture of how large the community is. The duo chuckle as they discuss how the part-time job has now become their life goal. Perhaps we may find the next Lionel Messi or Manchester United in this growing ecosystem.

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