Aditi Chauhan is overwhelmed. Never before has she received so many messages and mentions on social media. But then, never before did India have a woman national footballer playing in England.
Chauhan, who made her debut for West Ham Ladies FC on Sunday in the FA's Women's Premier League Southern Division, hopes those messages and tweets of adulation will force the All India Football Federation (AIFF), the overseers of the sport in the country, to make good on its promises.
An assurance to start a women's league in India has become customary for the AIFF, almost an annual ritual, but the league is yet to see the light of day.
“It is sad that even though (India’s) women footballers are ranked better in the world compared to the men's team, there is still no sign of starting a women's league to give young girls and women footballers something to look forward to,” Chauhan told HT on email.
“(When) we do not have regular matches throughout the year, how do you expect women's football to develop? It just makes me sad that AIFF has still not made any progress on the promise they made last year about starting a league for women in India and conveniently dodge questions about it in media as well.”
The India goalkeeper doesn't mince words – she knows the platform West Ham Ladies has given her, never mind the third-tier status of the league, is more visible than anything her teammates in the national team have.
“Hopefully this news will create a buzz around India which will encourage the authorities to take quick decisions and actions. I really hope we have a professional league in India and if it does start, then I would love to come back to India and play in front of my home fans,” said the Delhi girl.
A long journey
The Southern Division Women's Premier League isn't the top tier of English women's football – that credit goes to the Women's Super League, where the likes of Arsenal Ladies, Chelsea and Manchester City lock horns.
But had it not been for strict eligibility rules, Chauhan may well have played in WSL.
Aditi Chauhan (centre) in action at the 2014 Asian Games. (AP File)
“I wanted to continue playing football and gave trials for Women's Super League club Millwall. But I was told by the manager of the club that FA rules do not allow me to play for a Super League club with a student visa,” said Chauhan, who recently graduated from Loughborough University.
“The goalkeeper coach of Milwall Ladies team is also the goalkeeper coach of West Ham, so he suggested (to) me to try for them as they were looking for a goalkeeper. I played one friendly game for them before I signed the contract.”
The one-year contract with West Ham, however, does not entitle Chauhan to the financial stability of a WSL club. The Women's Premier League is semi-professional and hence, a monthly salary is something that Chauhan wouldn't get.
Nevertheless, it has been a long journey for the 22-year-old.
“I wanted to have a career in sports even after I stop playing football, that was the basic reason I decided to come to England and chose to do my Masters in Sports Management from the best sports university in UK, Loughborough University,” said Chauhan.
“It certainly has been a long journey, the standard of women's football is much better than in India, which helps me to improve as a player and as a goalkeeper. The facilities and infrastructure is much better and the matches, leagues everything more organised. But I have very fond memories from inter-university tournaments that I played representing Delhi University and Delhi.”
Recalling her moment of truth, Chauhan said: “As soon as our bus entered the stadium...and I saw the ground, I was excited and nervous as this is a league above the last club I played for so I did not know what to expect. But now I know what standard of football to expect and I need to prepare myself accordingly.”