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Bend it like Beckham, only better! Women footballers across the country show you how

Meet Afshan Ashiq and other footballers who are fighting societal norms and making women’s football take off

brunch Updated: Nov 24, 2018 22:12 IST
Sonya Dutta Choudhury
Sonya Dutta Choudhury
Hindustan Times
afshan ashiq,football,football players
Afshan Ashiq began playing football with the boys from her building (Location courtesy: St Andrew’s Turf Park, Mumbai, Art direction: Ananya Ghosh, Make-up and hair: Rashmi Shastri)(Prabhat Shetty)

Like many girls, Afshan Ashiq began playing football with the boys from her building. It was only years later, on the persuasion of her college coach, that Ashiq really began playing the game seriously. And then, one summer last June, she received an invitation from Sabir Shaikh, a Mumbai-based football coach, to compete in the trials for the Mumbai-based Football Leaders Academy (FLA).

Afshan Ashiq, who currently plays for Mumbai-based Premier India Football Academy (PIFA), will soon be the subject of a Bollywood film ( Prabhat Shetty )

Ashiq was thrilled. But soon, apprehension took over. Her parents would never say yes. They disapproved of her playing football. “It’s a contact sport, so rough, not good for a girl, why can’t you play cricket instead,” they demanded. Ashiq had shrugged off their disapproval, slipping out of the room she shared with her younger sister, walking through the streets of a sleeping Srinagar to her 5.30am practice. She’d braved the disapproval of her neighbours and even the Army. But even that felt easier than moving to Mumbai.

Over the next month, Ashiq spoke obsessively to her coach and with the officials at Real Kashmir FC about exploring this opportunity. Her parents were dead set against her going and no one she talked to could vouch for the credentials of the FLA club in Mumbai. Eventually, Ashiq put aside her fears, secretly packed her bags, and got onto a flight to Mumbai. “It’s a risk, but I have to take it,” she told herself.

The story of the girl who ran away to play football got around, and Ashiq, who currently plays for Mumbai-based Premier India Football Academy (PIFA), will soon be the subject of a Bollywood film.

“In Kashmir, we wore leggings under our shorts,” says Afshan ( Prabhat Shetty )

Bring on the girls

“The amount of talent the girls have in India is tremendous” — Sajid Yousuf Dar, former head coach, Indian women’s national team

There may be other such films in the offing as around the country, women’s football picks up. Girls are not just playing, they are turning into football evangelists, collaborating with coaches, clubs and corporates, and using social media and the Internet to establish networks, football teams, football leagues and tournaments.

“The amount of talent the girls have in India is tremendous,” says Sajid Yousuf Dar, former head coach of the Indian Women’s National team and currently Technical Director at State Football Academy, J and K. Earlier this month the senior Indian Women’s team successfully moved onto the next round of AFC Olympics 2020 qualifiers. Many of these players and others are playing in the Indian Women’s League 2018-19 that has already kicked off, playing in multiple tournaments and getting more exposure.

Meet the girls from Shree Geeta Vidyalaya U-17 team, (clockwise from far left) Ruksar, Renuka, Kulsoom, Alisha, Fiza, Sabika and Megha ( Amit Mane )

The girls of Shree Geeta Vidyalaya, in Govandi, Mumbai are doing this in a smaller way. On a recent Sunday morning, demurely dressed in salwar-kameezes and dupattas, they made their way to their school where they entered a classroom and emerged minutes later in full football gear. These girls are excited about an upcoming tournament. They form teams, auction players, and post the highlights and honours to their blog foxpassers.blogspot.com.

The team at Eastern Sporting Union in Imphal, Manipur ( Amit Mane )

For the last three years, the girls have been playing the JFK league, a five-city league tournament, where low-income schools like theirs play on the same pitch as the more elite schools in the city. “Last year we played Arya Vidya Mandir Juhu. We played our best, but we lost. Still it was my favourite match – because we learnt so much from watching them play,” says 16-year-old Shweta Shetty, an ex-student who returns to her school on some Sundays to play. She doesn’t think her college has a girls’ football team; she never sees girls playing there. “If you don’t have a team, go start one,” advises coach Anoop Parik, Teacher and Football Coach at Shree Geeta Vidyalaya, Mumbai.

Smells like team spirit

This was exactly what happened at the Vellore Institute of Technology in Vellore, where the girls played basketball, volleyball, throw ball, tennis and badminton, but no football. Until last July, that is, when posters began appearing in the girls’ hostels, inviting them to form a football team. The response was immediate and incredible. At 5.45am the next day, 100 girls, some of whom had never played football before, turned up enthusiastically for team selections.

Sports coach M. Karpagam helped the newly formed team get permission to practise on the field and then to organise a girls’ football tournament. “We used our school networks to reach out to almost 1,500 colleges across the country. Many sounded incredulous when we called them: ‘GIRLS’ football team?’ they would ask us,” says vice-captain Neha Elango. But slowly and surely girls’ teams did surface.

Many, like the girls’ teams at CMC Vellore and BITS Pilani, Goa, had themselves been formed only a few years earlier. Most were poor cousins to the bigger, better boys’ football teams, who get better playing slots, better coaches and better sponsorships.

For Kolhapur-based Mrudul Shinde, this inequality of opportunity was a big spur. “Kolhapur has a tradition of football – there are football clubs and regular football tournaments with prize money that goes from ~25 lakh to ~40 lakh – but it’s only boys’ football,” says the 22-year-old who plays for the Maharashtra senior women’s team. Shinde started a girls’ football league, raising sponsorships to hire grounds, for prize money, and to pay players ~5,000 each for participating in the tournament.

Goal keeper Alisha Kazmi is always ready to slug it out in the dust ( Amit Mane )

Yet, most girls have to tackle their parents before they can tackle logistics and opponents on the field. “You are a girl, why do you have to play football – you are fair and you will become dark,” Shweta Shetty’s mother never tired of telling her. And bigger still than the problem of beauty is that of modesty – how can girls wear shorts? What will people say?

Fiza, Saba and Saniya race for the ball on a playfield that is seven per cent the size of a regular football field ( Amit Mane )

The footballers have found ways and means to ease their parent’s fears. “In Kashmir we wore leggings under our shorts,” says Ashiq. At Shree Geeta Vidyalaya, the girls’ team wear shorts only on the school football grounds, then wash up and change into formal clothes before they return home.

Bend it like Bembem

Other problems are less easy to solve. It’s ironic that in the Internet age, one of our biggest problems is lack of information. Women’s football rarely gets coverage. Women footballers like Canadian Christine Sinclair, US goalkeeper Hope Solo, and Arjuna awardee player-turned-coach Bembem Devi are largely unknown by most girls who play football.

Information about training opportunities and tournaments is also hard to find. Many football clubs train girls for free. “The clubs’ quality of coaching is superior to many schools. But there is no formal system of trials so that talented girls have the opportunity to be picked up,” says 22-year-old Kimberley Fernandez, player at Bodyline Club and formerly football captain at St. Xaviers College, Mumbai.

The tournaments themselves don’t follow any fixed calendar. “You hear about the selections (for state and national teams) only after they have already happened, it’s like hide-and-seek – the few coaches and selectors in the know want only their players to go,” says Cyril Dsouza, sports coach at Mumbai’s Jamnabai Narsee School, who feels many more girls would have the opportunity to train and compete if only the information was available.

At many of the tournaments, facilities for players are abysmal, with terrible hygiene, which makes it much harder for women. At the School Games Federation of India National Games in Orissa last year, there was one toilet for over 100 players, recalls 16-year-old Deniese Pereira , a player on the Girls Under 17 Maharashtra State team.

“My life is different because I am a footballer.... Even when there’s nothing to talk about, there’s always football!” —Deniese Pereira, player, Girls Under 17 Maharashtra State team

But the football was wonderfully competitive with the teams from states like Manipur displaying a winning combination of power and endurance.

For the girls on the football fields and at these tournaments, the opportunity to play has changed their lives. As Denise Pereira says, “My life is different because I am a footballer – it’s made me more confident, more focused, it helps me mix with people. Even when there’s nothing else to talk about, there’s always football!”

Guest column: The mother of a young football player tells her little girl: this game is filled with life lessons… for you and for me!

Mumbai-based Sonya Dutta Choudhury gave up her career as a banker and turned writer. She contributes to leading dailies, magazines and is a columnist with Mint

From HT Brunch, November 25, 2018

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First Published: Nov 24, 2018 21:51 IST