It’s around six in the evening and as shadows grow long on the polo ground, a shrill whistle seeks attention of a group of young men busy kicking a football.
Nadiya Nighat is a hard taskmaster and her wards — 15 for this training session — are asked to watch closely as the 19-year-old coach, dressed in a pair of black shorts and a white jacket, shares some fine points of dribbling.
The first woman soccer coach and referee from Kashmir, Nighat wears her passion for the game and devotion to one of the game’s biggest stars — Cristiano Ronaldo, or CR7 — loud and clear, with JJ7 emblazoned on her jersey. JJ7 is her three-month-old football club and she is training the players for a B-division tournament planned after Eid. And yes, JJ is short for Jiya Jaan, the name Nighat is called by at home.
A passionate player, a coach and a referee – Nighat has all bases covered as far as the beautiful game goes and in doing so, she is challenging the gender stereotypes in the Valley.
Kashmir has several cricket and football clubs but not many girls play. Coaching is almost unheard of.
“There were a lot of problems initially – people used to say what can a girl achieve in football? But I ignored them. I knew my family and friends supported me. The people who used to look down upon me, now say encouraging things,” Nighat said.
Srinagar-born Nighat started at the age of 10. She used to practice in a local college ground —the only girl among 50 boys. Her home-maker mother was not comfortable as girls on soccer field were a rare sight. But, her father, who is with a city hospital, encouraged her.
“When I started playing football as a child, my father never stopped me. Whenever my mom objected, my father stood by me and always said ‘let her play’,” said Nighat, who is also a Lionel Messi fan.
“My mom has come around. In fact, she is a bigger supporter than dad,” said Nighat, who is giving Euro games a miss as she has to get up early in the morning for Sehri – she is fasting for Ramzan. She catches the games on the Net.
Support at home has earned her honours and recognition. Nighat is one of the two Kashmiri women to play in the state women’s football team. Last year, the All India Football Association adjudged her the “best referee” for officiating in a local boys’ tournament.
But, Nighat says she is still learning. She is taking coaching lessons and in October cleared the D-licence certificate – the basic qualification for coaching football in India. She wants more of the alphabet soup -- C, B and A licences that will allow her to coach teams abroad.
The licences may take time coming but coach Nighat already has three assignments. She runs a coaching academy at her home for budding players -- 29 children, including three girls, in the age group 6 to 12.
Along with a senior coach, the Real Madrid fan also trains the players of her club. There are 30 young men. And they swear by their coach. “Her football style is far better than that of many male coaches,” said 17-year-old Mir Burhan, a Class 12 student.
Sameer Gulzar decided to train with Nighat, who is just two years his senior, because of her skillset. “I was training under a male coach at another club before joining here. Nadiya’s coaching is far superior,” he said.
Her hard work was an inspiration for the Valley’s girls, said Jammu and Kashmir Football Association general secretary SA Hameed. “She is a player, a coach and a referee -- she does it all. Such is her dedication,” Hameed said.
Nighat, who also assists in training 18 students at the city’s government girls college, sees herself as a player as well as a coach. “You can’t be good at one without perfecting the other,” she said.