In April 2019 – long before the world was overshadowed by the dark cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic – preparations for the Under-17 Women’s World Cup 2020, to be hosted by India for the first time, were amping up to full speed. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) had approached the Reliance Foundation Youth Sports (RFYS) for a list of players who deserved a place in the national team. The RFYS screened 240 players at six of its zonal centres, and shortlisted 52 players who outshone others. Of these, AIFF coach Alex Ambrose selected nine football players who were to attend the National Camp in Goa, from where the team was to face-off against those from other nations.
Lavanya and Mariyammal, two teenage football prodigies from Tamil Nadu who grew to be the players they are with the support of the RFYS, were among these talented nine who were in line to represent the country at the Under-17 Women’s World Cup (which has now been postponed to 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic). Here’s everything you should know about the inspiring lives of Lavanya and Mariyammal.
Who is Lavanya Nithyanandam?
Lavanya Nithyanandam’s parents, Nithyanandam and Umamaheswari, are daily wage earners in Madurai, while her brother, Dhanasekar, is a gifted football player himself. As a child, Lavanya had a talent for sprinting and was drawn to ‘the beautiful game’ when she watched her older brother play. Like many women in sports, Lavanya had to face rejection and obstacles time and again. Yet, her indomitable spirit, love for the sport and the guiding hand of Dhanasekar helped the formation of the first girls football team at the TVS Sundaram Matriculation Higher Secondary School in Madurai.
Two years later, Lavanya moved to the Namakkal sports hostel, run by the Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu (SDAT), where she had the opportunity to take her career forward as a member of the Namakkal Government Girls Higher Secondary School’s football team. It was as a member of this team that Lavanya won the zonal leg of the RFYS in Coimbatore in 2019, which in turn helped her get selected for the national Under-17 team.
“The opportunity to participate in the national scouting camp was a big moment for me,” says Lavanya. “It gave me the chance to showcase my skillset and make it all the way to selection trials for the national camp, which wouldn’t have happened if not for RFYS.”
Who is Mariyammal Balamurugan?Born to weaver parents, Balamurugan and Ganthimathi, in Trichy, Mariyammal’s career trajectory is quite similar to Lavanya’s – a good reason why these girls are friends beyond the field too. Just like Dhanasekara in Lavanya’s case, Mariyammal’s elder brother Kalaiarasan (also a football player) introduced and guided her through the early days. Mariyammal soon grew to be a gifted striker while playing for her school team. When she arrived at Namakkal to join the same team Lavanya was on, Mariyammal played an instrumental role in many of the key victories of the team and filled up her trophy cabinet too. Her exceptional ability to deliver crisp goals got her noticed at the RFYS tournaments in 2018 and 2019, that too both at the zonal and national levels.
Once she caught the eye of the national coach and was selected to play for the Indian Under-17 team, Mariyammal went to Turkey for a preparation tournament. Here, she finished as the tournament’s lead goal-scorer with three goals in her kitty. The unfortunate and unprecedented advent of the COVID-19 pandemic may have postponed similar stunning displays of talent by both Mariyammal and Lavanya on the field, for now. But the journey these players have made from little girls fascinated by football to teenage players all-set to take the international football field by storm prove that they have a long way to go, many goals to strike and many trophies to bring home to India.