The girls from Jharkhand at The Oberoi Grand on Wednesday. Picture by Pabitra Das
They haven’t ever heard of Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas or Fernando Torres but 18 girls from the villages of Jharkhand have earned a trip to the land of La Roja to live their soccer dreams.
For the next couple of weeks, 13-year-old Rinki Kumari’s daily routine will see a drastic change. Instead of starting the day cleaning utensils, making cow dung cakes and sweeping the house before going to school, the girl from Hutup village will be doing what she loves most — play, live and think football — in a country that is now ruling the soccer world.
Rinki will lead a team of girls from Ranchi district of Jharkhand, in two tournaments, including Donosti Cup — one of Spain’s biggest soccer challenges. Team Yuwa, named after a Jharkhand-based NGO started by Franz Gastler, an American who came to India more than five years ago as an English language teacher, will be the only Indian side among 400 from 30 countries in Donosti Cup. The girls, who will be competing in the under-14 category with more than 30 teams, were in the city on Wednesday on the eve of their take-off.
The trip to the land of FC Barcelona and Real Madrid didn’t come easy for the girls. They had to dribble past taunts, criticism and even abuse.
Rinki started playing football when she was just eight, an age when most girls in the village would hopscotch. “When I started playing football, many villagers told my parents that playing a boys’ game would spoil me. I told my parents if they believed in me, they didn’t need to listen to what people said,” said the centre forward, who has led her team to victory in many matches. “Now they encourage me to pursue my dream.”
When Sunita Kumari, 13, daughter of a farmer in Ormanjhi, went to her village panchayat, for a birth certificate so that she could apply for a passport, she was slapped because she couldn’t pay. But nothing could stifle the spirit in the Cristiano Ronaldo fan, who says football gives her the “masti” that nothing else can.
Most of the girls come from families so poor that they don’t have televisions at home. So, the only time they have seen Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo in action is when “Sir” Gastler showed them match clippings.
But that didn’t stop Manisha Tirkey, a midfielder, from scoring a brace for India Under-13 against Bhutan in the final of a five-nation tournament. Also part of the team was Shivani Toppo, who went to Sri Lanka for the tournament months after her father’s death. The girls brought home the trophy.
“They are very tough, very hardworking. They don’t hesitate to engage in hard tackles. They are so involved that they want to practise seven days a week. But we force them to take a day off… we had to select the final team from almost 250 girls,” said Gastler, who plans to open an academy with a professional coach.
When Gastler first reached Jharkhand, he found most of the girls were school dropouts and got married early. “When I asked them what they loved the most, surprisingly they said football,” said Gastler, who has played ice hockey and judo but had no experience in football till then but the game proved to be “the best coach”.
Yuwa’s primary focus was to give the girls basic education and football helped unite the girls. Besides training the girls in football, the NGO also coaches them in English and maths and holds workshops. Nita Kumari, the vice-captain of the side and a midfielder, not only dreams of representing India like her friends Manisha and Shivani, but the daughter of a farmer also wants to study seriously. “Sir (Gastler) always says we have to study well to make a mark,” said the Messi fan.
Meena Kumari, the stopper, also wants to represent India in football and join the army “to save country”.