With a stunning turn of pace Sumati Kumari, India’s U-17 Women’s National Team striker, raced past her marker to latch on to a diagonal pass from midfield. Her first touch was perfect as she opened up her body and caressed the ball into the back of the net. A wave of emotions overcame her and after the celebrations subsided, she let out an earnest roar of delight that echoed across the mountains around the scenic Changlimithang Stadium in Thimphu.
One watching would be forgiven for thinking that it was the joy of scoring your first competitive goal for the country and all the years of hard work starting to bear fruit. However, little did the fans know that for the 16-year-old, the scream was a release of the pain and grief she had tucked away all this while.
"After scoring that goal, my mind immediately turned towards my mother. I miss her every day and each time I step on to the pitch, I think of her and the sacrifices she made for our family," Sumati recalled with a sobering yet courageous smile.
'Dedicate trophy to my mother’
Back in October 2019, as the Indian U-15 team prepared to depart for Bhutan for the U15 SAFF Women's Championship, Sumati received the news of her mother's demise. She now had a choice to make -- to go back home to be with her family or play for the nation.
"I wanted to go home but at the same time, I wanted to play as well. Jab mere ghar mein stithi aisi hai toh mujhe pataa hai mujhe khel mein aur mehnat karni padegi (Given the situation back home, I know I have to work harder in football now). I know that I have to keep working and improving to become a professional player and help my family)," she said.
Sumati would go on to score two more goals in the tournament as India lifted the trophy -- a triumph that she dedicated to her mother. She stated, "The tournament in Bhutan was a great learning experience and it is a matter of great pride that we won it for the country. I was so overwhelmed with joy as I knew that my mother would have been very happy and proud of me."
‘Ladke khel sakte hain toh ladki kyun nahi?’
The youngest among six siblings, Sumati hails from a family of farmers from Londra village in Gumla district of Jharkhand. Her tryst with football began only in 2016 and her rise to becoming one of the key members of the Indian team preparing for the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup 2020 has been nothing short of meteoric.
"The boys in my village used to play football and seeing them, I also felt like playing. My parents always supported and encouraged me to play, and they would often tell me 'ladke khel sakte hain toh ladki kyun nahi' (If boys can play, then why not girls)," she said.
She would play and kick about in local games before her talent was spotted by a local school principal -- Fr. Ramu Vincent, who took her under his wing and supported her.
"He is like a father to me and I speak to him every day, no matter where I am. I just used to play for fun and didn't know many of the basics but he saw my game and asked me to join his school. I got coaching there and he helped me with my getting equipment such as boots and kits. It is only with his support that I have been able to reach where I have."
A standout feature of her style of play, as well as her personality, is her grit -- which is the result of a highly competitive setup back home in Jharkhand and quality training.
"There is a lot of competition in Jharkhand and you have to work extremely hard to even enter the state team. We used to train with our coach day in, day out in the mornings and evenings. We even practiced on our own when we had free time. To improve our stamina, we even had road races and hill running in our schedules."
‘Learning new things every day’
Sumati soon made her way into the Jharkhand team and played her first Nationals in 2017 before playing a crucial role in her side's run to the final at the Hero Junior Girls' NFC 2019-20 in Kolhapur -- scoring 17 goals and finishing as the top scorer.
She was then called up for the Indian camp and along with the victory in Bhutan, she was a key member in the Indian team that recorded friendly victories in Hong Kong and finished second at the recently-concluded U-17 Women's Football Tournament 2019 in Mumbai.
"I feel I have become a much better player as we learn new things every day from our coaches. I have improved in many aspects, such as my first touch, and I have learned different skills that help me beat defenders in one-one situations. We have developed a great understanding in the team among each other and we are a real united bunch."
With India set to host the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup later this year, all eyes are on the team, being led by Swede Thomas Dennerby that will participate in the mega-event.
"Playing for India is a special feeling. We are working very hard for the World Cup and all of us realise how big an opportunity it is to be the first women's team from India to play at that level. We hope to put up a strong performance and in the process, inspire other girls to take up the sport," she smiled.