I like to let my football do the talking, Manchester United legend Ryan Giggs once said. A tribal girls’ team from near Ranchi has done just that and got all of India listening.
Theirs is a fact stranger than fiction. It began in the farms of Ormanjhi near here and, because an American dared to dream, ended with a trophy on the playing fields of Spain.
Two years ago Rinki Kumari and her teammates now aged between 12 and 14 were battling acute poverty, working as farm hands and possibly looking at a life of being a child bride as normal service. Football changed all that.
Picked up by Franz Gastler, a US national who in 2009 founded Yuwa, an NGO that uses football to promote health, education and a shot at a better life, Rinki and 17 others from the region were part of an under-14 girls’ team that played two international tournaments in Spain last month and finished third in one of them.
The coastal city of San Sebastian in the Basque region was where the Yuwa team stopped first, for the Donosti Cup. They lost the first match but two wins helped them qualify from the group stage before they went down to a Spanish team in the next round.
“We lost our first match as we were unable to control ourselves and often slipped running with the ball,” said Shivani Kumari, referring to the difficulty in adjusting to the artificial turf having played on uneven grass pitches at home. The Gasteiz Cup in Vitoria-Gasteiz was up next and here among 10 teams, Yuwa won the third prize. When it was their turn to be on the victory podium the girls, the girls changed into saris with bright orange borders, wore lipstick, flowers in their hair before posing with the most important piece of silverware of their lives.
Speaking from California, where he’s spending time with family, Gastler said the girls were given an official welcome by the Basque state government. “Everyone who met them became their fans. Even the ladies who served food in the canteens came to two of their matches to cheer for them.”
The week’s trip to Spain though has been not just a confidence-booster but one they are unlikely to ever forget. “The people are so disciplined there. Cars stick to lanes and traffic rules are followed. The buses were out of the world, so different from the ones we have travelled in Ranchi,” said Rinki, Yuwa’s captain whose father is a farmer. “And the stadiums were astonishingly huge and beautiful,” said Shivani.
Asha Kumari, one of the goalkeepers in the squad, said: “We would see planes in the sky and wonder when would our turn come and there we were, flying from Ranchi to Kolkata, Dubai and to Madrid…An air hostess took our autographs and after landing even the pilot posed with us.”
Vice-captain Neetu Kumari said they have picked up a few Spanish words. “We have learnt to say hello, hurry-up, good morning and pack up,” she said. If there was any regret for Neetu, it was this: the Indian rupee fetched you nothing there. Each girl said they carried between `2000 and `3000 pooled by their friends and relatives.
“The road to Spain was a rough one and the trip nearly didn’t happen because we got so delayed with the birth certificates due to the corruption and abuse the girls faced at the local panchayat,” said Gastler. He said the support from HT and other friends of Yuwa made the trip possible.
On May 1, HT had reported how the panchayat sewak of Ormanjhi, Dinesh Sao, harassed the girls by refusing to give them birth certificates. Sao had allegedly slapped and abused the girls and made them sweep the floor of his office. One day after the report was published, Sao was suspended. Anurag Gupta, IG CID, then intervened and helped the girls get their passports.
The little champions are home now. Life’s again about school in morning, helping parents at home and in the fields in the afternoon. Between 4 and 6pm every day on two different grounds these girls become part of a group of 200 girls who play football. It’s an activity described by Bill Shankly as not just a matter of life and death but far more important than that. These girls would know what the Liverpool legend meant.