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'Who will tell our story?': Shanti Mullick, the woman who took India to two AFC Cup finals

With the AFC Women's Asian Cup just a week away, The Bridge takes a walk down memory lane with Shanti Mullick, the captain of the Indian women's team which reached the 1983 final.

Who will tell our story?: Shanti Mullick, the woman who took India to two AFC Cup finals

Soumya Bontra

Updated: 7 Feb 2022 12:43 PM GMT

If the current women's football team has been doing exceptionally well, then they are doing so because they stand on the shoulders of giants.

Hard as it might be to believe, the Indian women's football team reached the finals of the AFC Cup in 1979 as well as 1983. It's a feat that The All India Football Federation (AIFF) has done little to remember – its website has no information on the team.

But when The Bridge reached Shanti Mullick, who played a key role in the trailblazing team, it found her memories of the time vivid and full of essential details.

Mullick, India's first woman footballer Arjuna Awardee, lives in Kalighat of Kolkata. Her schedule is busy as a coach. But she is friendly as ever, "Why won't I talk, I'll definitely share stories. Ask me what you want."

In a sport rife with misogyny, Mullick saw little of it as she began in football. This was the 1970s.

"My father who was in the military was a footballer himself. So when I told him that I too wanted to play the sport, he and my mother did not hesitate. But our relatives and other people around me weren't very happy with this decision. People in those days believed that if women played sports, it would affect their ability to get pregnant in the future," said Mullick.

Mullick had a trusted ally by her side. "My father fought with everyone and made them understand that the two aren't related. 'If girls can do heavy household work, why can't they play on the football ground?', he used to say. He encouraged everyone including me to play football," she said.

Mullick never watched her father play, but said, "Everyone used to come to me and say 'Your father is a great footballer, he played so well'."

If women's sports are tough now, in the 1970s the most basic of financial assurances were hard to come by. Women's football was introduced to India in the early 1970s, much later than the men's game. When the first Women's Asian Cup was held, Indian women's football was administered by the Women's Football Federation of India (WFFI), which was not recognized by FIFA.

Even though Shanti Mullick and her team are known as the golden generation of Indian women's football, playing in two Asian Cup Finals (1979 and 1983), their journey was anything but golden.

"I captained the team from 1981-1983. During this period, we played many international matches including the Asian Cup. Shukla Dutta, Kuntala Ghosh Dastidar and I – all three of us were also named to the Asian All-Star team. Even though we were placed second in the Asian Cup, we never received anything from the federation. We didn't even get good jerseys, kit or a camp, but we never stopped giving our best. The team faced a lot of hardships while playing, yet we have crowned champions on several occasions," Mullick said.

Mullick is also the first woman footballer to score a hat-trick in 1981 against Singapore. "Oh, that just happened. I don't know how much I scored, I'm just happy that the Indian team won," she said.

Shanti Mullick with her family (Source: Shanti AIch Mullick football academy/Facebook)

With the WFFI failing to secure FIFA recognition, in the early 1990s, the AIFF took the Indian women's football team under its umbrella, seeding a hope of a better future for the women's game in the country. However, things did not revive quite as fast as expected – a case in point for which is the AIFF's lack of acknowledgment of Shanti Mullick and her team's stellar achievement.

Mullick is also disappointed. "I don't know why AIFF doesn't acknowledge our team. They say the games we played before the '90s aren't recognized by FIFA. What kind of a line is this? It's AIFF's duty to tell our story to the people so it inspires more women to take up sports," she said.

When it comes to the last point especially, Mullick feels that the AIFF should do more.

"Popularising our story would have helped in busting myths about women playing sports. I am a mother now, aren't I?" she asked.

Shanti Mullick being felicitated at an event for her contributions to the game

Nowhere in AIFF's records, Mullick does draw a mean crowd at her coaching centre in South Kolkata's famous Rabindra Sarobar Stadium. Apart from football, Mullick who started off as an athlete has also been a national level cricketer, hockey player and handball player.

"It's a small coaching centre where I train young footballers aged between 5 and 18 years. My former coach and a famous footballer in Kolkata, Dr. Amritlal Chakrobathy, also helps me with training children."

Mullick has not had any government help in setting up or running this effort.

"I myself fund the centre. I only charge Rs.100 as training fees and that's used to repair the 60-80 balls we own. When I am called as a guest anywhere and they ask what I would like as a gift, I just say 'give me footballs, that's it'."

Shanti Mullick training youngsters at Rabindra Sarobhar Stadium (Source: Delhipost)

Most of the children Mullick trains are teenagers at risk. In offering them a healthy alternative when it comes to spending their time, Mullick is a saviour to many.

The current Indian women's team had recently put up a stellar show against mighty Brazil. Mullick couldn't watch the match but knows of it. "It felt good to see everyone talking about the women's team. The team displayed a great performance, I hope they get all the recognition and facilities from the federation that we couldn't."

An old newspaper cutting after 1979 Women's Asian Cup Finals

Many believe that hosting the Asian Women's Cup will be a turning point for the women's game in the country. Mullick is not one for such sweeping lines.

"The Indian team is good and even though they have better facilities than us, it's not enough. The team needs more practice, more tournaments and more matches. Only that could create a difference and very soon we will see India participating in the World Cup and winning major titles," she said.

She believes, "For women's football to change in India there need to be more state-level matches and better training facilities for the girls".

And then, perhaps the most important thing of all, "It's very shameful that women's sports in India is not treated on the same level as men's."

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