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Bend it like Beckhambhai

In a village near Ranchi, a small group of girls and their American coach are learning to juggle football — and their lives, reports Namita Kohli.

india Updated: Dec 05, 2009 23:30 IST
Namita Kohli

In Hutup, a tiny village on the outskirts of Ranchi in Jharkhand, daybreak has its own signs. It’s when a bleary-eyed Meena Kumari, 12, wakes up at 3 am, wraps her rugged blanket around herself and gives a shout to her ‘compatriots’ in the neighbourhood. “Ground nahi jaana kya (Don’t you have to go to the ground)?” By 4 am, the girls are ready to march to the football ground in their ‘jerseys’ (sweatshirts) and shorts, holding on to their footballs — and some cow-dung cakes to light a fire for warmth.

In the villages surrounding Hutup, a ‘football mania’ of sorts seems to have gripped the young female population. Since February, around 55 girls of ages 9-18 years have been learning how to kick around with the help of four coaches, including a young American development professional. In less than a year, two of them have made it to the state team. The rest have managed to bag one week’s training at the Tata Football Academy in Jamshedpur.

It’s a rather unlikely development, especially in a state that performs poorly on many of the empowerment indicators — 4 per cent of the girls aged 7-10 are out of school, a number that jumps to 21 per cent by the time the girls turn 15-16, says Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report, 2008.

To add to that, Jharkhand leads Indian states in the incidence of child marriages — 43 per cent girls are married off before they turn 18, according to the District Level Household Survey 2.

“Here, only the boys would play. The girls were always doing household work. Though, at times, we would play with a ball made of junk and some polythene bags,” says Meena, almost embarrassed at the thought now.

Today, football enthusiasts like Meena have saved enough to buy the footballs, the shoes, and a few sweat-shirts. Besides, they have even managed to beat the boys at their own game, literally, at many of the local matches.

The girls, however, have a different perception of change. “Earlier, we used to talk only in dehati (local dialect), but now we can talk in English and Hindi,” says Suman Kumari, 12, with a new-found confidence.

The English, the football — and the confidence — has come courtesy Franz Gastler, 28, a Harvard law graduate and a former consultant with the Confederation of Indian Industries, who was based in Minnesota before he shifted base to Jharkhand in February.

“Football is one of the most democratic sports; it’s pretty inexpensive and easy to learn. When we started, surprisingly, most of the opposition came from the girls’ mothers, and not their fathers, since the mothers would need help with housework,” says Gastler. He hired three local coaches to train the kids. The results are encouraging. The girls are learning to juggle their football with housework and, at times, schoolwork.

So though Shivani Kumari, 9, says she still has to pitch in with housework, she makes it in time for the football. “I never miss the practice; football is more fun than school,” she says.

After months of “negotiations”, a few parents — most of them daily-wage labourers earning less than Rs 100 a day — have started giving in. Thirty-something Manjo Mahato says she lets daughter Sushila skip the housework sometimes. She says, “Slowly, we realised she might be able to do something in this field. One day, she might even make the village proud.”