The air around the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubhaneshwar, Odisha was filled with excitement and energy as fireworks lightened up the sky to signal the start of the FIFA under-17 women’s World Cup opener between India and USA.
A proud moment indeed for the young Indian girls who lined up in front of a capacity home crowd that arrived to back their national team. After an electrifying start to the tournament, the mood, however, turned sombre when the game ended in a 0-8 loss for India.
As the scoreline suggests, the hosts were completely outplayed by the opposition, who recorded their biggest win in U-17 women's World Cup history. The glaring disparity in terms of performance between both sides was visibly evident throughout the match.
Despite the loss, there were some brief moments of brilliance that brought the Indian crowd to their feet -- the first of which was offered by a player named Nitu, donning the No 17 jersey, as early as in the third minute.
The diminutive midfielder dribbled past opponents before launching an assist to her teammate and forward, Neha, on the left wing to bring up what could have been India’s first-ever World Cup goal. However, Neha delayed, allowing USA right-back Gisele Thompson to recover the ball.
What followed was complete domination by the US, but that one moment from Nitu offered a glimmer of hope -- one that pushes you to drive forward no matter the circumstances.
Turning Hobby Into Passion
Midfielder Nitu Linda is one of those chosen few who got selected in the national side and featured in the opener against USA. But to label the 16-year-old as lucky would be inappropriate considering her backstory.
A native of Haldgam village in Ranchi, Jharkhand, Nitu started playing football when she was in class four. Her tryst with football was accidental as she had no prior knowledge of the game but played it as a hobby which ultimately turned into a passion.
Luckily, she was good at at the game and possessed the talent required to excel. However, to reach the heights she has attained today, Nitu had to sacrifice a lot.
“I used to wake up at 4 am in the morning, then clean the house along with the utensils, then go to the ground, then return to go to school without even eating properly,” said Nitu whose mother passed away when she was nine years old.
Despite the struggles at home, Nitu engaged herself with football largely due to her love for the game.
“After returning from school again sometimes I would do housework, sometimes not because I was more interested in playing the game,” said the young footballer who has also worked as a labourer to make ends meet at home.
Though Nitu was often troubled by financial constraints, she found support from her family, especially her brothers, who took care of her when elder sister Geetu Linda moved away to pursue her studies.
The incident, however, had left Geetu saddened as she could not help Nitu during that period. “She was broken. Her friends, coaches, brothers and relatives all supported her so much, but I am so sad I was not there,” said Geetu who couldn’t control her tears.
Despite the support she received, Geetu believes it was Nitu’s self-belief and resilience that took her forward.
“She didn’t give up and now she will be playing in the World Cup. I feel very proud. Not everyone can get such a platform. She struggled but reached there,” Geetu added.
Shot at a Better Life
If passion for the game drove Neetu, it was the shot at a better life that pushed her teammate Anita Kumari to take up football.
The striker, who is a resident of Charihujir village in Ranchi is the daughter of Asha Devi, a daily wage labourer, and Puran Mahto, who is unemployed and struggling with alcoholism.
The 17-year-old is the fourth child from a family of five sisters. Anita’s family is so neck-deep in poverty that the maximum they can afford in their daily diet is “mad-bhat” (fermented rice water).
Unlike Neetu for whom football started out as a hobby, Anita took up the sport at the age of seven to support her family.
“I liked football so much after watching my seniors and sisters play. I used to feel I should do something for my family. Something to help my parents,” Anita said.
If economic hardships were not worrying enough, Anita also had to glide past moral persecutions from the society.
“I faced many difficulties like people throwing broken glass on the ground, and villagers used to ask us not to play saying you are a girl, and you should not play in shorts. A lot of them commented on our clothes. We didn’t have shoes initially and played in slippers,” she recalled.
The Pillar of Support
Neetu and Anita would have never in their wildest dreams imagined of representing India had it not been for their mentor and coach Anand Prasad Gope.
Anand runs a non-profit football academy in Kanke district of Ranchi. It was Gope who instilled the belief in the duo to jump past life's hurdles and aim for the top.
Having coached over 250 girls since 2013, Gope admitted how strenuous it was to convince parents to let their girls out and shared instances where he had to literally beg to give the girls a chance.
“On 2 October 2013, I brought 15 girls to this ground and started playing football. But after 3,4 days all the children stopped playing football, their families said what will you guys do after playing football? This is a male game, you guys wear short pants," Anand said.
"It took me 5-6 months to convince the parents. I said give a chance to the girls as you give a chance to the boys,” he explained.
The 8-0 drubbing at the hands of the Americans would have dampened the spirit of the young Indian girls, but certainly not their hopes and ambitions. For hope and ambition has so far been the major driving forces in a country where women’s football remains inconsequential.
Most of them who feature in the under-17 side hail from poor backgrounds like Neetu and Anita. They are the deserved few in a country of 1.39 billion people that beat the odds to make it this far. Hence, they merit all the credit.