On a cold Saturday morning, as the sun starts to peep out from behind the clouds, a group of 30 girls aged between seven and ten years jog on to the grounds of a school in central Delhi.
The school is empty as the winter vacations are underway, and there is a sharp nip in the early January air. But none of that is curbing the enthusiasm of these 30 girls, dressed in blue and black football kits, who begin jogging at NP Bengali Girls Senior Secondary School near Gole Market.
After a brief warm-up session, the girls are given footballs and they begin drills for passing, dribbling and fitness, before being divided in two teams and facing off against each other. After a two-hour training session, the coach blows the whistle and tells the kids to take a 15-minute break.
“This journey has not been easy for anyone,” said Monika Bisht, their coach.
“When they started out nine months ago, these girls did not even know the game’s rules. Since most of them come from underprivileged families, they had never watched football. They used to try and pick up the balls in their hands and run with it,” Bisht says.
These girls are part of the New Delhi Municipal Council’s (NDMC) ambitious project to groom 90 schoolgirls, mostly from underprivileged families, into football players. The project, which was launched nine months back, aimed to help these girls represent their schools at state or national level competitions and pursue sports as a career in future.
“When we started off, I was tasked with selecting girls from hundreds of possible candidates. Since none of these girls knew how to even properly kick a ball, I picked them on the basis of how athletic they were. We looked for the fastest and strongest girls in their respective age classes and hoped that we could train them to become good football players,” Bisht says.
For the children, the thrice-a-week training sessions have become a chance to play – something they don’t get much space to do at home.
“I look forward attending these training sessions. Though I barely get an opportunity to play at home, at times, I play ‘kho kho’ with friends in the neighbourhood lanes. But practising football in such a big ground with all the sports gear really makes me feel happy. It feels so professional,” says Asifa, a student of Class 4 and resident of Hamdard Nagar.
Bisht says she spent the first few months of the girls’ training on showing them video of matches so that they understood basic rules and tactics. “Even though the kids preferred playing out in the field to watching games, but we had to get them to understand how to properly play. We even made them follow games from the FIFA World Cup in the summer,” she said.
Thanks to the video sessions, some of the kids have even picked favourite players and teams.
“My favourite player is Lionel Messi from Argentina, who plays as a forward. I want to play just like him,” says Asifa.
Manisha Kumar, a student of Class 5, was forced to leave practice for two months after her family wanted to pull her out of the team. “Coming here is like a dream come true. I am thankful to my teachers and coach who requested my family to allow me to play the game. I have already learnt dribbling, juggling and passing in the past nine months. I have also improved my running skills,” she says.
To realise the project to identify and train 90 girls, the NDMC took the help of Delhi Soccer Association (DSA) and hired national-level coaches, to provide professional training to girls selected from three NDMC schools — N P Co-ed Senior Secondary School in Lodhi Road, Navyug School in Sarojini Nagar and NP Bengal Girls Senior Secondary School at Gole Market. Apart from that, the girls were provided with basic kits — boots, shin guards, a football and even water bottles.
“After months of hard work, we have been able to make a difference as these girls have not just learnt the game but ready to participate in inter school competitions,” said NDMC chairman Naresh Kumar.
“The best thing about the project is that we are grooming these girls from a tender age so that they can easily pick up the sport. Also, we are hoping that after seeing the success of this programme, other government schools will also introduce this game for girls in their schools,” he said.
Besides regular training and exercise, NDMC arranges for proper diet, fitness check-ups and other facilities for the all-round development of girls. The NDMC plans to expand the facility to other schools in future, also provide the training to young boys and establishing a football academy.
“After selecting these girls, we initially faced strong resistance from some parents. They were either concerned about the impact it would have on their child’s study or against the participation of girls in football sessions. Likewise, there were girls who have not even seen the football match before. We had series of counselling sessions with them to explain them the relevance of games,” says Bisht, the coach.
“Today, some of these girls have the potential to play at the state level in next four to five years from now,” she said.