Haryana has always been notorious for its skewed sex ratio and instances of female infanticide. Although the north Indian state has, over the years, produced names like Olympic medallists Sakshi and Deepa Malik as well as boxers Geeta and Babita Phogat, lack of education and awareness means that patriarchy still rules the roost in this part of the country. However, the sex ratio touched the 900-mark for the first time in over 20 years in 2017, indicating that winds of change are finally blowing. Much of this can be attributed to the aforementioned names bringing glory to their nation and now, residents of Alakhpura near Bhiwani have another reason to cheer their girls on, football.
In what is a heart-warming example of a community getting together to support a cause, girls here are being recognized for their talent and encouraged to pursue their footballing dreams. It started back in 2008, when the girls from Alakhpura School reached the finals of the district-level competition in their very first attempt. This was followed by victory in the Subroto Cup in 2014, probably the biggest inter-school competition in the country. Obviously, this resulted in the villagers realizing that the girls can make a name for themselves in the sport and soon Alakhpura FC was formed.
The club participated in the inaugural Indian Women’s League (IWL) in 2016 and against all odds, reached the semifinals. Thus began the start of a beautiful story that has, for the past four years, consistently produced top level female footballers. Not only that, some of the girls have also managed to bag scholarships and government jobs, elevating the lifestyle and standard of living of the entire village in the process. According to sports officials in the region, they bring close to Rs 90 lakh into the village each year by playing in different competitions. Furthermore, as of last year, at least 12 girls had also been selected for respectable positions in the Railways, Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), Assam Rifles, Shashastra Seema Bal (SSB) and so on, on the back of their on-field exploits.
In 2019, the Haryana state women’s team in various age groups had as many as six girls from Alakhpura and went on to win all of the respective tournaments. One of them, Ritu, was also a part of the Indian team that played in the South Asian Games the same year. Another youngster named Santosh was in the preliminary squad for the U17 World Cup. However, the biggest name to emerge from the area is that of Sanju Yadav who now plays for Gokulam Kerala in the IWL and has played for the Indian national team. Her meteoric rise is a source of inspiration for everyone in Alakhpura, with parents understanding that, given the opportunity, their daughters can also provide them with a good life.
At its core though, this is still a story about standing together for something that the community believed in. The villagers have over the years chipped in to ensure that the girls train regularly and under decent conditions. From donating 5-acres of land for the development of infrastructure to crowdfunding a changing room and water tank with RO system, they have done their bit even without much assistance from the government. However, the real improvement in the girls’ quality started showing through once the Haryana government appointed a full-time female coach in the form of Sonika Bijarnia. Her dedication and commitment to the cause has seen more and more girls come forward and take up the sport with the view of excelling at it and making their families proud.
As a result, the village now has more than 200 girls practising twice everyday between 6am and 8am and again between 3pm and 6pm at the two village grounds. Participation in the IWL in subsequent years hasn’t yielded the best of results though, as they failed to qualify for the semifinals in the third edition of the tournament in 2019. Be that as it may, they still managed to eke out a victory against the much-fancied Hans Women FC and it is results like these that motivate the girls to keep pushing harder in the face of adversity.