AS THE world celebrates another season of the “beautiful game”, an 80-year-old couple in a coastal hamlet of Kovalam in Kerala is giving wings to the soccer dreams of a group of talented but underprivileged children, mostly from the fishing community. They even built a practice stadium for the kids, who would otherwise be training on the beach.
TJ Mathew of Kerala and Sally Mathew of San Francisco were working in the United States when they met and married in 1977. After his retirement, as Sally says, “I persuaded him to settle in India.” The couple moved to Kovalam in 1991.
Initially, the couple would help children in the neighborhood with their education. “We set up a small foundation to help these children, most of whom were raised by single mothers,” says Mathew. Thus, the Mathew/Sally Educational Trust (M/S ET) was established and registered as a charity.
Later, Mathew came across Kovalam Football Club by chance, founded in 2008 for underprivileged children by a passionate footballer from Vizhinjam, Ebin Rose, who played for the Kerala team when it won the Santosh Trophy in 2004.
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Kovalam FC became the first club from Kerala to play in the Under-15 I-League and also played in the Kerala Premier League this year with an all-local talent. “My dream is to develop Kovalam FC into a professional football club,” says Ebin, who started playing when he was in college.
“These guys have inherent skills and talent. But they didn’t have the expertise or the money to continue it. Shashi Tharoor (Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram), knowing my interest in football, asked if I could help them. That’s when it all started,” says Mathew, who played football at university level.
In the beginning, about six years ago, the couple provided financial support to the club. “But when I watched their play, I realized the kids had the skill, but lacked the stamina. My wife found out the reason – their meals were just rice and fish gravy due to poverty. So we started a hostel from a rented place to provide these boys with a comfortable environment and the necessary nutrition,” says Mathew, the younger brother of veteran journalist TJS George.
The couple then raised money from their relatives to build a hostel and practice stadium. “Now we have a modern facility on three floors that can accommodate 52 children. But since we can’t cover the operational costs, we now have 41,” says Mathew.
Of the 41 children, all aged 13-19, 30 are from the fishing community, while some are from remote districts such as Malappuram and Kasaragod. In addition to football training, the children are also sent to a nearby school to complete their education.
“Mathew has put more money into this than he could afford and even part of his home is being used for the club. With a big vision he is making extraordinary efforts… I try to support him in every way possible. He has a vision, he has passion, he has dedication and he delivers,” says Tharoor.
Beniston John, 25, from Vizhinjam, who has been with Kovalam FC for over 10 years, says: “Our club started getting more recognition after Mathew Sir and Sally Ma’am came in. Premier League).”
Manoj M, 20, who joined Kovalam FC when he was in 4th grade says, “We now have a facility to practice and study together.”
A few children have received sponsorship from groups such as Muthoot and RM Education Solutions. And there are a few parents who pay at least Rs 1,000 per month.
The elderly couple is now raising a corpus fund to support the facility, where the average monthly cost per child is currently around Rs 7,500. “Once the corpus is established, Sally and I will hang our hats,” says Mathew, adding that they are “only 89 and very young.”
Neither Mathew nor Sally interfere in the selection or training process. “I say to Ebin, ‘Let’s not focus on winning trophies, let’s make champions,'” says Mathew.
Ebin says they have no criteria for selecting children. “Football is a game that God has given to everyone. We take children and make them talents with the necessary support,” he says.
For Mathew and Sally, their greatest reward is seeing the children play and move to greener pastures. “Seven of our children have been selected by other clubs. Last year, the Gokulam Group recruited four, the Tamil Nadu Police recruited one, while a Bengaluru club and a Puducherry club each recruited one,” says Mathew.
Sajith Poulose, who joined Kovalam FC at the age of 16, played the Santosh Trophy in 2018 which landed him a job in the education department of the Kerala government. “The turning point in my career was provided by Kovalam FC. I grew up playing with them,” says Poulose who joined Kickstart Football Club, Bengaluru three months ago.
However, the coach is not too happy with the talent drain. “But it is natural, as we are not yet a professional club where we can support them financially,” says Ebin, who hopes that dream comes true soon.