At a time when the entire world is glued to television sets to watch the World Cup, 18 tribal girls from Jharkhand's hinterland are busy sweating it out in the fields to hone their own dribbling and passing skills for the biggest tournament of their lives.
Buoyed by their performance in two Spanish tournaments last July, the YUWA team would again board the flight in the wee hours of Tuesday, this time to fly to the US to participate in the Schwan's USA Cup – the biggest international youth soccer tournament in the US – under the watchful eyes of the amateur coach Franz Gastler who is also the founder director of Yuwa.
“We have to sleep at night to wake up early in the morning for our own practice sessions. This time we have to win. So watching World Cup matches are difficult,” said the 13-year-old captain of the team.
As part of the child protection policy YUWA India has decided to keep identity of the girls travelling to the US hidden. “After the Spain trip the then captain of the team had got several marriage proposals she was only sixteen and the parents were happy to marry her off before we counselled them,” Gastler said, adding that more these girls were getting popular in their villagers the more number of marriage proposals were coming to the parents.
The Yuwa founder director said that these girls are struggling against several odds to keep their football ambitions alive.
Founded in 2009, YUWA foundation is one of the largest girls' football programme in India with 250 players (mostly girls), which recently secured a bronze medal at Gasteiz Cup held in Spain.
The foundation uses football as a platform to combat child marriage and human trafficking for the empowerment and education of girls hailing from Ormanjhi on the outskirts of Ranchi.
"And they are no ordinary girls. All of them hail from some of the poorest of poor families where education was a far-fetched dream. Most of their elder sisters were married off before they could attain 18 years. But these girls had a dream to study, and play, and we are just fulfilling them," said Gastler, a 30-year old American who swapped his comforts for the dust and grime of Indian slums.
Hailing from poor backgrounds and illiterate families, the girls faced snide remarks, and virtually no encouragement from villages as they donned jerseys and spike boots to practice football.
But soon after the girls returned from Spain their families were flooded with marriage proposals. Pressure started mounting that they should be married off as they would find good grooms.
But it is not just all about football. While the tournament will come to an end on July 19, the girls would stay back in the US till the end of July to tour several universities and institutions in Chicago and Minnesota.
"They would be interacting with the university students and professors. We are exploring the possibilities so that some of the girls could go and study in the US in the future. The Indian community in the US is also helping us a lot in this regard and in arranging the logistics there," said Rose Thompson, Yuwa programme coordinator.
A ray of hope is, however, fast emerging from behind the clouds of poverty and illiteracy. Gastler said there has been a drastic change among parents and the community. After the team's performance in Spain, they went to Delhi, where they were again feted for playing well in other national tournaments. Leaders and celebrities both from Jharkhand and outside have praised them. Their confidence level has grown fast.
"My next plan is to buy a small plot of land near Ranchi and set up a residential football academy cum school for these children," Gastler added.
Asked whether he has any plans to come to neighbouring West Bengal, a football crazy state, to set up a similar football infrastructure for girls and boys he said that proposals are pouring in from across the country.
"But I have told everyone that they should take the initiative and Yuwa would provide the necessary help and back up. I don't want to grow a mile wide with just an inch deep," said Gastler.
Gastler said, "Unlike the previous Spain visit they have received tremendous support from the passport and concerned departments. In fact the home department staff collected money and donated us for the girls' miscellaneous expenses during the trip."
The YUWA girls earlier this year were selected as brand ambassadors of the water and sanitation department for the ongoing Total Sanitation Campaign. The department went on to gift a toilet to every YUWA girl in their homes.