Against The Odds: Sportspeople Who Fought Every Kind Of Adversity And Ridicule

The high-pitched whine of vuvuzelas has quietened at Police Stadium, Shahibaug. As afternoon melts into a mellow evening and dragonflies buzz around the grass, Assam defeat hosts Gujarat 4-2 in the women’s football competition.

Dressed in red, Assam led 3-0 at one stage in front of the partially occupied, but vocal, stands. The noise level increased when Gujarat scored twice to make it 3-2. Egged on by supporters, the home girls, in dark blue jerseys, pressed for an equaliser. But as it happened, when the team went on an all-out attack, the defence was left vulnerable. Assam drilled in one more goal at the other end to put the match to bed.

For the girls of Gujarat, though, the result is encouraging. It is their first shot at the National Games, that too by virtue of being hosts. They have overcome odds to play professional-level football in the first place. To give a fight to a formidable Northeastern team, therefore, is progress.

After the match, Mulrajsinh Chudasama, the honorary general secretary of the Gujarat State Football Association (GSFA), proceeds to an air-conditioned room on the edge of the ground.

“The Gujarat football team has never played in the National Games. We are the hosts, that is why we are playing, and not because we qualified. So, 4-2 against Assam is a good result,” he tells Outlook. Chudasama shares some nuggets of information on the evolution of women’s football in Gujarat. Almost all the players are from an underprivileged background, who surmounted socio-economic challenges to reach a level where they could hold their own against strong teams. In particular, the village of Mahadevpura, in Patan district, has emerged as a nursery of women’s football. Many of the players earn Rs 4,500 a month under the government’s Centre of Excellence scheme. In most cases, this is their family’s sole or primary income.

“Nearly half the Gujarat girls team is from Mahadevpura,” Chudasama says. “There is a school there which, since about 10 years, has been identified by the Sports Authority of Gujarat. The girls were given footballs and they soon started to show results. During the first Khel Mahakhumbh (Gujarat’s regional sports competition), there was an inter-district championship, and Patan girls won in a couple of age categories. Some of those girls are now playing for the Gujarat senior team.”

‘Log to bolte hi hain’

Gujarat’s captain is Priyanka Bhil, a 25-year-old who looks younger than her years. She has poise and is articulate. Her long hair is neatly tied. There is a stillness in her manner that exudes calm and conviction. After she is introduced by a media liaison officer as someone from the tribal community, Bhil asserts, politely and in a clearly urban accent, “Actually, main proper Ahmedabad se hoon.” (I’m from Ahmedabad proper.)

True grit: Priyanka Bhil (top); Ranjibala Devi
True grit Priyanka Bhil (left); Ranjibala Devi

That doesn’t mean she hasn’t faced challenges. Bhil’s father is a private car driver, and mother a homemaker. There are relatives who keep nagging her parents to get her married. “That’s how it is among Gujaratis, log to bolte hi hai (people will talk),” says Bhil, a defender who looks up to Indian football captain Sunil Chhetri and women’s football star Ngangom Bala Devi. “But my parents support me.”

Bhil, who started playing cricket but then switched sports, is the eldest of four children. All of them have taken up some game. Her sister plays football and her two brothers play hockey. In her spare time, she likes to draw, dance and sing.  “Everything from bhajan to rap,” Bhil says with a laugh. “As for dancing, yes, it is Navratri season but we are focusing on the National Games.”

Sport, she says, has taught her to fight.  

“Sport teaches you to never give up. Whatever the situation I might be facing, I forget about it when I step on to the field. In fact, many times I find that solutions and ideas to overcome that situation strike me after playing,” she syas.

In Particular, The Village Of Mahadeopura, In Patan District, Has Emerged As A Nursery Of Women’s Football.

Bhil, who likes Chinese food, wants to represent India and then stay with the game in whatever capacity. She has studied physical education and takes on refereeing and coaching gigs. She has done a D-license coaching course. It widens her horizons and supplements her earnings.  

“I want to represent India in football,” she says. “People think the Gujarat girls team won’t go far. But we are doing well, we are getting support. I want to continue on this path. Once girls reach a certain age in Gujarat, they get married. But in other teams, there are players who play till 35 and even more.”

Chowmein to champion

Wiry Assam midfielder and captain, W Ranjibala Devi, is the daughter of a vegetable seller (mother) and momos and chowmein stall owner (father). After the match against Gujarat, the 24-year-old has changed from football cleats into softer sneakers. In her hand is a bottle of water to make sure she stays hydrated.  

“My family worked very hard so that I could play football, not only my parents but also my brothers and sister,” the midfielder, originally from Manipur, says in broken Hindi. “They want me to do well. Without their support, I don’t think it would have been possible.”

Ranjibala has represented India and holds a sports quota job in Assam Rifles. That helps her and her family keep going.   

Similarly, rugby is proving to be the lifeline for Bihar girls. They are the reigning national champions, and though they lost in the semis in Gujarat, rugby has caught on in the state.

Making smart moves A football match between Assam and Gujarat
Makng smart moves A football match between Assam and GujaratPhoto: Dinesh Parab

“Whatever their difficult circumstances at home, sport always brings you this beautiful sensation of, ‘Ok, there’s something else in life. I can forget about anything that I’m going through and I can focus on playing’. I feel Bihar is seeing the importance of that,” the team’s South African mentor Kiano Fourie says. “They have speed. A majority of them can take on most people in a race. Skill wise, they adapt quickly. Their need and want for knowledge is also a big thing. They will come to you on a daily basis and they want to learn something new, even a small trick,” he adds.

Sprinting past speech defect

In verdant and relaxed Gandhinagar, the capital of Gujarat, Amlan Borgohain is going through stretching exrecises on the lawns of the IIT campus, the athletics venue. He has just won the 100m gold with a timing of 10.38 seconds. The 24-year-old from Assam, six foot one, has a droll sense of humour. When asked to analyse the dash in detail, he says he does not have much to offer as the race was only “10.38 seconds long.”

Beneath The Smiling Exterior, However, Is A Story Of Struggle, Though Not Of The Financial Kind. Borgohain Has A Stammer.

Beneath the smiling exterior, however, is a story of struggle, though not of the financial kind. Borgohain has a stammer. In every other respect, he is a picture of robustness. But words evade him at times when he speaks, and his face contorts and twitches. Initially, he was bullied about it, and it would get to him. Now he has learnt to ignore the taunts.

“People always bully you for something or the other,” he says. “Earlier, I would think about it, but now I don’t care, because I know who I am. Believe in yourself. Trust the process. That is my motto.”

Also on the lawn is the women’s 100m winner from Andhra Pradesh, Jyothi Yarraji. One of her motivations for getting into athletics was improving the lifestyle of her family in Vizag. Jyothi’s father works as a security guard, while her mother is a homemaker.

“Not much has changed in terms of our standard of living, but things are certainly better. Besides, they are proud of me,” says the soft-spoken 23-year-old sprinter.

A thumbs up Amlan Borgohain, who won gold in 100m sprint
A thumbs up Amlan Borgohain, who won gold in 100m sprintPhoto: Dinesh Parab

Whenever things get tough and she feels low, Jyothi reminds herself of her goals. And then she feels better. “I remember my targets,” she says. “Then I speak to my friends and family members, they are so positive. They give me encouragement.”

Her role models are Jasmine Camacho-Quinn, the Puerto Rican Olympic 100m hurdles gold medallist. And Neeraj Chopra.

“I want to give everyone in Indian athletics hope, the way Neeraj bhaiyya has done,” she says.

Proving a point  

Arunachal Pradesh lifter Sambo Lapung, who won the 96kg gold at the National Games and set a new record, faced not only money crunch but also failure in a sport he had initially chosen, boxing. Worse, after getting punched in the ring, his coach at the SAI Centre in Itanagar, a tyrannical figure, would hit him as punishment.

Jyothi’s Role Models Are Jasmine Camacho-Quinn, The Puerto Rican Olympic 100m Hurdles Gold Medallist. And Neeraj Chopra.

“I tried boxing only for about a year in 2008. But I gave it up. What is the point in getting thrashed both in the ring and off it?” he says. “We used to train alongside weightlifters and I noticed that the weightlifting coach was much more lenient towards his wards than our boxing coach, who beat us up for the slightest of mistakes.”  

In fact, Lapung wanted to leave the Centre altogether. But his sister Chitung, an athlete, asked him to take up another sport. They were the children of a farmer from Arunachal’s East Kameng district. Chitung was mindful that sport offered some perks like free food and kit, at the very least.  

“She persuaded me to try sports to get two meals a day and new clothes,” he says. “When I discovered that sports could provide me a means to support the family, I pursued.”

As a Hawaldar in the Army, Lapung’s earnings are still not enough to meet his expenses. Supplements are essential for him, but he has to pay for them. “There have been loans of about Rs 11 lakh every year for the last four years,” he rues. But now, he has something to show for it, something that is priceless—a National Games gold medal record and the sweet satisfaction of having conquered the odds.

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