Indian sports offers us many Women's Days throughout the year. It is when our female athletes step up to compete, shake the rafters with their performances and emerge on top. Across sport, individual or team, across competitions national, continental, international and Olympian. Sport is an Indian woman's tool of aspiration and her ticket to freedom. Every Indian woman athlete in her own way bounds over boundaries, smashes ceilings, cracks open from boxes and conquers whatever orthodoxy presents itself in front of her.
But who said Women's Day is only for the celebrations of milestones? Should it not also be about the acknowledgement of striving that thousands of our girls must go through to find their way in sport?
Two days ago, an email from Annie Jacob and Mathew John, parents of a football-mad 12-year-old, landed in my inbox. What they are looking for is something simple and yet complicated. It's a residential football school, of which there are dozens in the country for boys of all ages. The problem is finding one for their daughter, Nathania. Last year, Nathania was one of 1,600 kids who took part in a sponsors' national ball skills contest and became one of two Indian children selected as official match ball carriers during the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. Nathania's match was Brazil vs Costa Rica on June 22 and her story was told in this video. Its sweetest moment comes when, standing in the tunnel, the wide-eyed 11-year-old is seen shaking hands with Neymar.
Nathania began her football at Rishi Valley School when she was eight. She is currently being home-schooled in Kotagirl in Tamil Nadu's Nilgiri hills. It is the only solution for her parents after they were unable find a residential girls' football school. Like the kind there was for boys that focuses on football, coaching, nutrition and competition, balancing studies through the national open schooling system. Today, Nathania and her mother commute 70km up and down three times a week to the First Kick School of Soccer in Coimbatore where she can train and play with the boys.
India's place in the FIFA women's team ranking is 62. In Asia, they are ranked 11th -- behind Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Jordan and Iran, among others. The Indian Women's League has come through two hard seasons with less than 10 teams in both editions. There are junior and sub-junior women's national championships that take place outside the notice of the rest of Indian football. Unlike the men, there is very little money, and neither a stable club structure nor a sustainable competitive calendar for Indian women's football. Amongst the career choices offered by Indian sport, never mind out of the park, women's football is nowhere on the horizon.
Catch India's super girl as the Official Match Ball Carrier in Brazil Vs Costa Rica match on 22nd June at 5:30 PM. Don't miss the big moment! #KiaOMBC #FIFA2018 #KiaInIndia #BRAvCRC pic.twitter.com/SYU7srbiJ5
- Kia Motors India (@KiaMotorsIN) 20 June 2018
None of this matters to Nathania's parents. Annie and Mathew's email was marked, "our struggle with football." Annie says she is determined her daughter be given an opportunity to learn and play quality football. Wherever it takes her and through whatever route she finds, to make a career from it. They will keep looking for residential football schools for their daughter, making the phone calls, chasing down links on the internet, travelling across the country to find that place where their daughter's footballing dream can be chased. Nathania's ambition, Annie says, is to play for the FC Barcelona women's team.
As we salute our incandescent women champions, let's also remember the hundreds of Nathanias and the constant climbing of their families. It is they who push our sport forward an infinitesimal inch at a time. It is they who ensure that every year Indian sport will keep having many women's days.