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When girls play it like boys
Few noticed when the Indian women's football team won the SAFF Cup. A girl's event in Delhi, however, caught people's attention.
Mizoram's Offee Lalmingahualpuia bends it like David Beckham and cuts through the opponent's defences like Lionel Messi. The tiny 13-year-old, who was the leading scorer with 14 goals including four hattricks at the recently concluded girls' under-17 Subroto Cup, dreams to be a part of the Indian contingent. She hopes to emulate legend Oinam Bembem Devi of Manipur who has been a mainstay of the Indian women's national team for over a decade now. In the recently concluded SAFF Cup for women in Sri Lanka, the 32-year-old Bembem once again proved the inspiration as India swept the regional title.
Bembem's standing in the north-east and the popularity of the sport in Mizoram made Offee choose football at the young age of eight. The Subroto Cup was the first time she represented her school. "In Mizoram football is very popular and there is no discrimination. I started playing football with the boys in my locality, " a shy Offee says.
Offee's passion for football is shared by her family too. Her father PF Zodingliana, an officer in the revenue department, ensures she gets what she needs. "My father supports me completely. He just wants me to play football and represent India in the future. He gets me whatever I ask for, " Offee says.
But talents like Offee sometimes remain undiscovered due to lack of support from parents and less tournaments on national level.
Says RK Amusana, coach of winning team Oriental English School from Manipur: "A number of league games are conducted in Manipur. Most of the girls dream of representing India, but All India Football Federation doesn't recognize any tournaments which makes things a little difficult. "
The lack of a national league for women is a big deterrent. The AIFF, under repeated proddings from the sport's world body FIFA, says it is keen on the states starting their own women's domestic leagues, but there's little to show on that front. For now, Bengal, Manipur and Goa host state-level leagues. The $100, 000 grant that FIFA disburses, has a clause that 10 per cent of the money must be spent on women's football. The states, however, have some issues in hosting women's league as it requires more security and organisation. Moreover, most clubs do not own a women's team. It's mostly the institutional teams that take part. Like in Goa, it's just a four-team league. Currently, the Indian women's team is ranked 62nd, something the men's team can only dream of. Experts say that with a little more support, financial and organisational, women's football has more chances of making it big in the world stage than their more illustrious half. But there are the ground realities, as echoed by the members of the SAFF-winning Indian women's team. Goalkeeper Aditi Chauhan says it's rather discouraging to find no media or crowd at the airport on their arrival after winning the Cup. "Unlike cricket or our male counterparts not many people know us. There was no media, no coverage was given, nobody realised that we put in two months of rigorous training to win this Cup, " says the Delhi-based UP player. "We need to have more tournaments at the national level to help us improve our ranking and experience. We are better ranked than our men's team. We, too, need more exposure trips, " she points out. Another member, Tuli Goom of West Bengal, complained of the inferior kit quality in Lanka. "At least give us the kit at par with the men's team. If we get same chances as our men we can do much better, " says the defender. Aditi, however, feels it's the lack of popularity that discourages parents from sending their daughters to the football field. "It was difficult telling my parents that I was choosing football. After three, four years of playing, they have come to terms with it. Today after the tournaments we slip in to our normal lives, we don't live a 'hi-fi' lifestyle, " she points out. "We need recognition so more talented girls can come up and play, " Aditi continues. Sixteen-year-old Charu, a science student of Delhi's Alcon Public School, faces a similar fate. Charu began playing football when in the XIth grade but has constantly battled strong opposition from parents. "I was good at running so my coach told me to play football. I tried convincing my parents but due to their strong opposition I dropped it for a while before picking up again. But even today I know when I reach home at 6 in the evening, I will get a scolding for wasting my time in football, " says Charu. Asked if she attempted to convince her parents? "After I explained the benefits, my father got a little supportive but he still asks me to play a 'girls' sport like badminton and quit football which he considers a 'boys' sport, " she says. It's her love for the sport and dream of making to the Indian team that Charu continues to train in the afternoons without letting her parents know. "I want to represent India one day, so I'll just go home and silently listen to all the scolding. I am not allowed to go in the morning for practice so I train in after school before attending my tuitions, " she says.
Unlike fellow players, Charu's parents have never seen her play, but she does not let that deviate from her dream. "It does feel awkward when I see other parents encouraging and sometimes drop in to watch fellow players for matches, but it doesn't matter anymore, " she concludes.
Charu's coach and P. E. teacher, Manoj Kumar Sharma feels it's due to the misconception among parents that it is still difficult to manage 16 girls on the bench. "Now there is prize money, the job prospects have increased with Railways and Services absorbing girls, then there are scholarships too. But it's still a challenge explaining to parents, " said Sharma.
But on a contrasting note, the girls from Madhya Pradesh's Daly School believe that calling football a male sport is a misconception in itself. "Football is as much our game as it is for the boys. Back home women's football is as popular, In fact due to the popularity of the sport it is difficult to make the team also, " Madhya Pradesh's captain Shilpika Ganeriwala says.
"If you really want to play then football will never seem like a hindrance for studies. Parents who have issues with their girls playing football have no place in our team, " says Shilpika firmly.
Keeping in mind the need to bridge the gap between school and professional football, the Indian Air Force for the first time opened the doors for the under-17 junior girls. Air Commander Manvendra Singh, the chairman of the organising committee said the tournament for women happened at the right time.
"Women are making their mark in sports. Not just Delhi, a lot of schools within India are promoting football among girls. People are not even aware that we have an Indian women's football team. We realized there was a missing segment with no platform, no coordination between the under-14, under 17 and professional football.
"Last year we had introduced this tournament in Delhi and NCR to see the response. It feels we introduced this tournament at the right time. We will bring it up even further, " Singh says.
The first edition of the tournament saw participation from 17 teams including Afghanistan. "We are fortunate to have Afghanistan this time. This adds to the uniqueness as people in Afghanistan do not associate with football. One can use this tournament as a metaphor for women empowerment. We are encouraged to see 17 teams and we will give all that is required, " he says.
"We use minimum resources to conduct this tournament and with the involvement of districts around the country, the talent doesn't remain undiscovered. We are here to encourage football at grassroots level and ensure fair play, " he concludes.
For the giggly Offee Lalmingahualpuia from Mizoram, all this is just an opportunity to play football at the highest level, yet. "Till last year, my teachers thought I was too young to take the pressure of matches. It's because of this tournament, I could represent my school, " she signs off.
(With inputs from Saumyajit Basu
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