She has been dribbling with the boys, now wants to don the blue jersey of the national football team

Manisha Vishwakarma, 14, lives in Bankatia village in Uttar Pradesh and has represented the state in the sub-junior girls national football championship. She is good at the sport, but her biggest hurdle has been poverty. Her father works as a carpenter in Mumbai and her mother has to borrow money from her neighbours every time Manisha has to go out for trials. Manisha rues the lack of any support from either the administration or local leaders. "I have to leave this place to grow. But I don't know where and how to go," she said

Daya Sagar

Daya Sagar   13 July 2019 12:12 PM GMT

Manisha Vishwakarma is proud of her black football jersey that has 'UP' (Uttar Pradesh) imprinted on it. The 14-year-old from Sant Kabir Nagar's Bankatiya village calls it a reward for her three-and-a-half years of hard work – of training and competing with boys at the Khalilabad district headquarters stadium for want of a girls team, and a testimony to the fact that she has represented the state in the sub-junior girls national football championship held in Odisha in June, 2018.

She now dreams of donning the blue jersey of the national team. But, she fears, the dream may remain unfulfilled due to the lack of proper training facilities in the district and support from the administration.

"I thought things will get easier after the sub-junior national championship, but that has not happened," said Manisha, who has so far participated in 8-10 state-level competitions.

Football journey has not been easy

Manisha's football journey has not been easy, especially given the attempt at every turn to restrict girls sportspersons to just running and athletics. The eighth-standard student's initiation into sports was, in fact, through athletics. Her exploits in running competitions made her a top athlete in the district. It also meant she could practice at the district headquarters stadium, where she developed an interest in football. Her female coach, however, would insist that she stick to athletics. This would result in arguments, said Manisha.

While she dismissed her coach's objections, she still had to win the support of her family. They didn't believe she would be able to compete in a game as physical as football and that too with boys. But, after her name appeared in a couple of local newspaper reports, her family members relented.

"She has the family's support," said one of her brothers Sandeep Vishwakarma, who, according to Manisha, played a big role in convincing the family that she can compete in the game. "She has to often go to places like Agra, Meerut, and Benares (Varanasi) for trials. I usually accompany her. But when I don't get leave from work, she goes on her own," said Sandeep, who works at the district RTO on daily wage. "We have never stopped her from going. Yes, we remain worried about her safety and health."

Biggest hurdle has been poverty

The biggest hurdle for Manisha, however, has been poverty. Manisha's father works as a carpenter in Mumbai and her other brother has a private job. The agriculture field they own is hardly enough to sustain them.

"She needs at least Rs 1,000 to attend a trial," said her mother. "Also, we get to know about the venue only a day or two before the trial. We often borrow from the neighbours to send her. They taunt us saying, 'she is a girl, where are you sending her.' But we have never stopped her," she said. "She is always immersed in football. She is either cleaning her shoes or trying to heal her wounds with the warmth of fire."

"I usually have to travel in the crowded general compartment of a train to go for trials," said Manisha. "The next day I give the trial. When I am not accompanied by a female athlete, my brother (Sandeep) goes with me. This means he has to forgo a day's wage."

Manisha rues the lack of any support from either the administration or local leaders. The state government offers scholarships to athletes who take the podium representing the state or the country. Manisha's team couldn't go past the quarterfinals in the sub-junior national championship. Hence, she is not eligible for any support, although her individual performance was impressive. In four matches, she scored six goals, including a hat-trick. She could have scored more but for her hair, she said. She couldn't score a header in the match she had a hat-trick. "Since I had long hair, there wasn't enough power in the header. After the match, the female coach of the team reproached me," she said, adding this has happened often.

"The state should have a scheme to support such talent on the recommendation of local coaches or officials," said a coach at the stadium not wanting to be named.

"Her confidence has improved"

Manisha is talented, pointed out Amit Kumar, district sports officer and a football coach. He said he could sense her abilities the first time she came to play football. "Her movements are good. Her kicks pack power," he said. "Her game improved after she started playing with boys. After the national championship, her confidence has improved substantially."

But till her abilities get noticed on a larger stage, Manisha has to make do with the help of local football enthusiasts to pursue her passion. Recently, after the national championship, a local businessman gifted her a pair of shoes of a big brand.

She also has the backing of the boys she trains with. "They want Manisha to succeed so that the district can make a name for itself," said Amit Kumar. "They share her joys and sorrows. Once, when she met with an accident, the male players helped her recover."

Manisha's biggest disappointment is that she couldn't take part in the 'Khelo India' games in Pune. Having played against some international players at the sub-junior national championship, she was confident of doing well at the games. But she didn't know about the trials. "Whenever there is a trial in Benares or in other places, female athletes from those areas inform me about it. But during the 'Khelo India' trial, I lost my phone. Even 'sir' (Amit Kumar) did not inform me," she said getting emotional.

Amit Kumar says he got to know about the dates late. Manisha is saddened that a good opportunity slipped away from her.

Manisha trains other girls

She is not deterred though. She makes it clear that she is not like most villagers who take to sports as an easy way to a job through the sports quota, only to be bogged down by lack of resources and proper training, stiff competition, or the demands of running a household after getting a job. "I am not playing the game just to get a government job. I want to keep playing," she said.

She is as dedicated as ever. She wakes up as early as 5 am everyday so that she can complete the essential chores at home and head for training at the stadium. She trains in the evening, too, after school.

In fact, inspired by her, many girls are taking up football. She herself trains many of them. Initially, having been the only female player in the region, she had to play for other nearby districts. She, therefore, formed a district team by encouraging girls in her school to play football. Now 10-13 players like Muskaan (13), Rinki (12), Pinki (12) and Vinitha (12) train every day and play with boys.

Manisha said she cannot dedicate much time to these girls as that would affect her training. The girls need a full-time coach, she said. District officials do concede that there is lack of proper facility. This has made some girls to look at a new private academy that has opened in the district.

The academy has offered Manisha free training, but she is not keen. She feels her progress has stalled. She wants to train in a good academy to make herself competent at a much higher level. "I have to leave this place to grow. But I don't know where and how to go."

When asked her if she cries when she gets disheartened, she said, "If I start crying, everything will come to an end." She then picks up the football and spins it on her fingers – just like a good footballer.

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