They say all you need to be able to play football is, well, a football and if you can afford the luxury of boots, that is not half bad. What they forget to tell you is that it’s only that simple when you’re a boy. When you’re a girl aching to kick a ball into the back of the net, you need to brace yourself to kick a lot more than a football in your pursuit to wear a jersey and my life on the football field was no different.
Growing up in Rambagh, a small Kashmiri village, there was no other woman footballer who I could turn to as a role model, as an inspiration. Football, which was not immensely popular in my locality, was only played by a handful of boys and absolutely no other women. But when I marched into the academy in my mohallah, the coach, who would later go on to become a major source of support in my life, welcomed me with open arms.
Back in 2007, the complete lack of women in the academy was a bit of a puzzle for me. A little probing into the matter helped me to decode the root of hesitation that stood in the way of parents allowing their daughters to embrace the game of football. Besides the fact that in the society that we were growing up, it was the lack of reliable female coaches that made parents hesitate. The need to be able to play freely, when all their lives the girls have been brought up in a controlled environment, was an important factor which the parents, as well as the young girls felt, could only be achieved under the guidance of a female coach.
Obstacles in my path were far from few, and in many ways, the football field has been a bigger teacher to me than any school in my life could prove to be. When I started playing in the academy, I was the only girl competing and playing with a pack of boys. What I realised was the term ‘sportsmanship spirit’ is used by people a little too loosely.
It amazed me how the only people who had a problem with my my pursuit of becoming a footballer were, not my parents or my coach, but the boys who I played with at the academy. But I had my own dreams to realise, with no time to spare for needless heckling. I resorted to my coach’s support during my early days, who happened to have no time for needless bullying either. The rules were simple- either they swallow their pride and play as told or they can pack their boots up and march right away. Anyone who had a problem was welcome to leave since I sure wasn’t going to.
The confidence that my coach instilled in me helped me grow as a player as well as a person. He gave me the power to never back down and stand my ground- a lesson I have carried with me all my life. Soon enough, my grit wore the boys down and now, if I do not end up for practice someday, these same boys call me to ask why I am not there. Funny, how a little courage goes a long way.
With time, it wasn’t just the boys, the people on the streets who changed their approach to my time on the field. The change had to come from within myself too. The fact that I was the only female player in an academy because of the lack of good female coaches always irked me and I knew I had to change that. So now I bear the twin responsibilities of being a coach as well as a footballer. I have started two U19 clubs, JJ 7 Boys and JJ 7 Girls, of my own. Apart from that I also work with the State Football Academy, now that the Sports Council has appointed me as a coach there.
It’s not that I always dreamt of coaching young children to become footballers. This dream to coach came about only after my dream went unfulfilled: of donning the India team jersey and playing for my country, watch the Indian flag fly high. That dream will always be extremely close and I will do everything in my power to make sure there will not be a single girl under my watch who will lose out on their dream to represent India.
Logistical shortcomings have stood in my way so instead of dwelling on my misfortunes, I have turned to make sure it is no one else’s misfortune. I have directed my attention to grass root level to help girls play U12, U15, U19 and reach the ultimate pinnacle of success.
I am using my experience of all the trouble I have faced to understand what will help parents overcome their fears. For instance, I have started tournaments for school children and last year as many as fourteen schools participated, in which each school had 20 girls taking part.
Now that I have become somewhat well known, people recognise events associated with me so the inhibition has lessened enough for parents to let their daughters step on to the football field. I am glad that I have benefitted young girls by becoming a coach. It is clear that all that was needed was a reassuring woman in charge. Since girls find it easier to play in my private team JJ 7 Girls instead of with boys in SFA, I am thinking of starting a women’s team in SFA too so that parents deem it safe, with me present there.
I will never forget the fact that me not being able to represent India had nothing to do with my shortcomings. Jammu and Kashmir lacked the proper infrastructure, a definite team to send girls to the national camp. My dream to play for the national team was thwarted for no fault of my own. It’s only after, that the J&K women’s team came into existence. I received a lot of support from the J&K football association. Without their support, I would not have been able to become a licensed coach.
There were so many raised eyebrows and so much speculation regarding my ability to become a licensed coach and look at me now. I am a qualified D license coach, well on my way to becoming a C licensed one if all goes well.
Girls growing up in big cities have little or no idea regarding how much a small town girl has to go through in order to achieve their dreams. Initially, the Maulvi’s followers would smirk at me and make snide remarks when I went by, but now that I have shown my worth, they even turn up to support me.
My dream in the future is to make women’s football big in Jammu and Kashmir. Football, in itself, is not that popular in our area, even when it comes to men. So one can imagine how much is wanting when it comes to women’s football, from logistics to sponsors. Sponsorship for girls is actually something I eagerly wish the government would pay attention to. Girls’ football is the one place where all sponsors turn their back other than Jammu and Kashmir Football Academy.
What needs to be understood is that I could have done none of this without the support of my parents. When the news of me entering the world of football hit the relatives, the reaction was not the most encouraging one. Conventional conservative mindsets could not accept the ghastly notion of their family’s daughter being associated with sports. Until recently, the J&K team had only me and one other girl from Kashmir, because of the lack of support and help. I am ready to go to any length to change that. These days I even go to the homes of these girls who have potential but do not have supportive parents.
Having said that, I want all young girls to keep my message in their hearts no matter what path they take in life. If you want to do something, nothing should be able to deter you from your goals. The more someone doubts you, use it to your advantage like I did. Turn every no into a yes and there can be no force strong enough to push you away from your goal. When I was a girl, growing up, my sole goal was to play for India, now I dream to be the helping hand that will allow other girls to live their dreams.