The Alakhpura village in Haryana is a thriving hub for women’s football in India where every other girl takes up this sport in pursuit of gaining financial freedom, eventually breaking the societal taboos.
In the last decade, the village has consistently churned out players who rose their mark and made it into the Indian women’s national team. And one of the newest addition from the Alakhpura brigade to don the blue jersey has been central midfielder Ritu Rani.
Buoyed by injury, Ritu Rani had to undergo a two-year-long hiatus which had taken a mental toll. However, today she’s fit and kicking and had already been a part of the contingent that played the COTIF Cup, where India finished third.
Early beginnings from Alakhpura
Growing up in Alakhpura, Ritu had an early start to her footballing career amid a vibrant footballing culture in the village. Studying in a school, where sports was taken pretty seriously, Ritu didn’t hesitate to play alongside the boys and kept on improving her game.
“I started playing football at the age of ten, and while I was in the seventh standard, the passion took a new direction seeing senior girls coming up and training at the field where we played. The moment I saw them, I realised that I would want to become like them. It motivated me immensely, which later transpired as my future,” says Ritu in an exclusive with The Bridge.
While many of her age were being forcefully pursued into studies, Ritu’s family encouraged her to play football and keep a hundred per cent focus on the game. Her father, who is a farmer, made sure she never misses her training and used to take Ritu every day to the ground after school. It was he who bought Ritu a new pair of shoes before she went on to play her first professional match. The Alakhpura school had made its name as one of the strongholds in the grassroots of India’s footballing map. The Alakhpura school girls participated in their first district-level competition in 2008 and managed to reach the finals. They won the Subroto Cup—a national-level inter-school competition—in 2014 and 2016 in the U17 category and reached the finals in 2015.
In 2016, Alakhpura FC was formed to participate in the inaugural Indian Women’s League (IWL), organised by the All India Football Federation (AIFF). They won the regional qualifiers but lost in the semi-finals. But, by then, the girls had made their mark on national football. Ritu played inaugural edition of the IWL in 2017 and was also was awarded the player of the match after FC Alakhpura held Jepiaar IT FC to a 1-1 draw following a sensational goal from the central midfielder. Players like Sanju Yadav, Samiksha and Manisha rose to the ranks in the Indian football team, starting from Alakhpura.
Call up to the Indian team and an injury setback
Her dreams took wings in 2017 when she was called up to the senior Indian women’s national camp for the first time. Ritu went to Delhi to take part in the camp and soon found herself playing for the Indian team, which went to Malaysia to be a part of the FIFA Friendly matches. However, tragedy struck when she came back from Malaysia. While playing a domestic tournament in Maharashtra, Ritu suffered a heavy blow enduring a knee injury.
A former India national, Maymol took charge of the Indian women’s squad in 2017 as India’s first woman coach. Under her aegis, the team has seen more highs than lows, which Maymol has achieved by instilling self-belief among the members.
“Rocky ma’am has been a guiding figure for me. I have gained immense valuable inputs from her, which helped me kept going during the injury days. Often she stretches us to our limits but I know she wants us to perform to our best capabilities and keep incorporating newer techniques of the game. Earlier, I used to play as the right-wing. But Rocky ma’am instilled the belief in me, which motivated me to play as a centre forward.”
Ritu shares that during her initial days, there was not that much government support for them to pursue football. However, she credits the contribution Pooja Narwal, who became the first woman player from the state to don the Indian jersey, whose journey led to a shift in focus. “Pooja has been an inspiration for us, who helped to attract government support for us,” says Ritu.
A fan of Sunil Chhetri, Ritu shares a pretty friendly relationship with her teammate Sangita Basfore. They help each other in improving their games, always suggesting how to tackle the challenges thrown their way. After recovering from a long-drawn injury, Ritu hopes to contribute regularly for the Indian women’s team going forward and aims to take the country to newer heights.