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Indian Women's League (IWL)

Surviving 90 minutes — Mata Rukmani FC's inspirational journey to IWL

Belonging to a small ashram in tribal Chhattisgarh, Mata Rukmani FC is punching above their weight in IWL 2021-22 with a bunch of 15 to 20-year-old girls.

Mata Rukmani FC Indian Womens League IWL

Mata Rukmani FC pose before their IWL match


Abhijit Nair

Published: 5 May 2022 2:30 PM GMT

"After our 0-8 against Gokulam Kerala, the senior players from their team clapped for our efforts and came to each one of us to say well played," giggles Mata Rukmani FC's (MRFC) captain Reet Kashyap in a telephonic conversation with The Bridge.

It is not that the MRFC or Reet have low expectations from themselves, but it has more to do with the fact that a bunch of 15 to 20-year-olds from a remote part of tribal Chhattisgarh were up against some of the biggest players in the country for 90 minutes.

Mata Rukmani FC is unlike your usual rich, financially well-to-do club with a big corporation or industrialist to back them. Instead, they are possibly the smallest club in this edition of the Indian Women's League (IWL) based out of a small ashram in the Bastar district of Chhattisgarh and sustaining themselves mainly from donations coming in via CSR.

"We are not a very big profit-making club. We are based out of the Mata Rukmani ashram in Bastar which looks after close to 3000 underprivileged girls from the nearby areas. The resources are thus very limited. Neither do our girls have a proper football stadium to practice, no proper nutritious diet which a team playing at this level should. But under the guidance of Tauji we have been able to sustain this team just via the money from CSR," says MRFC coach Sandeep Singh, who joined the team just six months back.

Tauji or Padma Shri Dharampal Saini is a very influential figure in the Mata Rukmani ashram. A freedom fighter during his younger days, tauji started the ashram way back in the year 1976 with just eight girls for the well-being and education of underprivileged girls.

Mata Rukamni FC with Tauji Dharampal Saini (centre)

Tauji, who himself was an athlete back then, was impressed by the strength and stamina these young girls in his ashram displayed, that he started teaching them football by watching the likes of Messi and Ronaldo play on television.

But, things have changed for the Mata Rukmani Football team since then. Playing their first IWL season have already registered a win in the top division league of Indian women's football.

MRFC went past Hans Women FC 3-2 in a thrilling contest to register their first-ever victory in IWL with Reet Kashyap adjudged the Hero of the Match.

"We have put in our 100% in IWL so far and it was nothing short of a dream to win our first match and the award against Hans," says Kashyap, who was forced into football by Tauji after someone complained against her mischievous behaviour to him.

Lakshmi Mandav – yet another standout star for MRFC so far, credits the ashram for changing her life.

"I saw my friend playing football in the ashram and tagged along to play. It has changed my life" she laughs.

"At first Tauji simply used to tell us to go to the ground and play matches against each other, but that has changed. Since coach sir came in, we have a lot more focus on fitness, dribbling and other technical aspects," Mandav says about the change she has observed in her game in the last six months.

Coach Sandeep Singh, who joined the team after a collaboration between MRFC and his Ardor Football Club, has taken MRFC to IWL in mere six months.

"We had seen these girls play before without any coaches or training, and they were just too good to ignore. It was a no-brainer for me to say I will train them once the collaboration between MRFC and Ardor was announced," he states.

The only way is for this bunch of girls is up, believes Singh.

"We might have won only one match so far, but these girls have given it their all. From training on grounds with cracks and stones to competing in these carpet-like grass – it is a drastic change. My girls conserving their stamina, surviving and fighting it out till the 90th minute against teams like Gokulam Kerala shows they belong here," Singh says.

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