A karate brown belt, Saina rose through the problems to become the first Indian to reach the top of badminton rankings
In September, the second season of the multimillion dollar Indian Super League (ISL) kicked off in Chennai amid fireworks and a Bollywood-style glamorous opening ceremony.
Eight teams comprising players from the national team and former internationals prepared to compete in the three-month long league worth $2m in total prize-money.
A little over 8,000km away, Aditi Chauhan, Indian women team’s star goalkeeper, was weighing her options as she looked for sponsors to help complete her first season in the English Women’s Premier League.
|Men vs women|
Men: 167 (of 209)
Women: 56 (of 177)
Men: ISL, I-League I-League 2, state leagues
Men: Federation Cup, Durand Cup, Santosh Trophy, IFA Shield, Indian Super Cup
Women: Indian Women’s Football Championship
By signing a season-long contract with third-tier West Ham Ladies Football Club (WHLFC), Chauhan had become the first Indian woman to play English league football.
But the grass was yet to turn the shade of green she wanted as she sought financial and legal sponsors to help her stay in the UK until the end of the season and beyond.
Women’s football in India is limited to a national championship spread over a few weeks. International fixtures are few and far in between.
Last December, the AIFF announced plans to launch an ISL-style football league for women by the summer of 2015. The summer has come and gone but the promise of investing in the women’s game remains unfulfilled and probably forgotten.
Chauhan’s football journey began at the age of 15 when her basketball coach sent her to the Delhi under-19 women’s football team trials.
“Having played basketball for so many years, my coach thought I had a firm grip on the ball so I would make a good goalkeeper,” she told Al Jazeera.
Apart from having a black belt in karate, Chauhan was also a zonal-level track and field athlete when she first made her way into professional football.
“At first, football was just another sport for me. I got selected as a reserve goalkeeper and was part of the Delhi U19 team at the national championship.”
But this brief stint with her state team was followed by some time away from the game due to lack of opportunities. A year later, she was called for trials for the national U19 team.
“Once at the training camp, I realised I might get a chance to play for the country. It was then that I got serious and set my sights on becoming the first-choice national keeper.”
Three months later, Chauhan was named on India’s U19 squad. And she fell in love with the sport.
After graduating from Delhi University and playing for the state side in the national championship, Chauhan decided to continue her education within the realm of sports. Last October, she made the cross-continental hop to study sports management at Loughborough University in England.
It did not take her long to slot into the university football team but it did take some adjustment from the scorching heat and dry grounds of India to the wet outfields and groggy weather in England.
But her search for playing opportunities restarted once her year-long degree came to an end.
“I gave trials for Millwall Ladies, which is a second division club, and although their goalkeeping coach liked me, I was unable to sign for them on my student visa.”
But soon, Chauhan was signed up by West Ham as their first-choice goalkeeper on a season-long contract, and an inadvertent PR officer.
“It is an added responsibility now that everyone is watching me and following my progress. I feel like I am representing India here so I have to be careful as I am not just playing for myself now.”
Lack of opportunities
Coming from an urban military family, Chauhan didn’t face much opposition at home for showing interest in sports.
“My parents have always been very supportive. Being a government employee, it was a big deal for my father to send me here on his limited income. Now, when they are introduced as Aditi Chauhan’s parents, it brings them pride and joy.”
Her father did object to her choice of sport and encouraged his daughter to pick up the tennis racket, thinking it would be a wiser decision in the long run. The few tennis lessons that the then 16-year-old girl took weren’t enough to sway her heart away from football.
“Sometimes, in the middle of my career, I have wondered if I should have picked up an individual sport,” she confesses.
“There aren’t many football tournaments for women in India and international fixtures are also limited to a handful, so I find myself wondering ‘What next?’ and if I should really have chosen an individual sport.”
Her trepidation is not unfounded. Modern Indian sports history is embellished with female stars winning international acclaim and fame. Badminton’s Saina Nehwal, tennis star Sania Mirza and boxer Mary Kom have all stood out internationally.
“What Sania and Saina have done for Indian sportswomen is unbelievable but I have never felt like I had to become like a certain person or needed a role model in order to succeed.
I was playing football because I loved it, not because of any incentives. I wasn't thinking about money and fame. It was pure love
“Tennis might have brought me more fame but there’s no guarantee that I would have done well in a sport that my heart wasn’t set on. I was playing football because I loved it, not because of any incentives. I wasn’t thinking about money and fame. It was pure love.”
Pure love, however, can only take a sportsperson so far.
Women’s football still lacks the attention it needs from the authorities in India. Critics believe the grand announcement for the development of women’s football, which coincided with a visit from FIFA officials, was merely a wooing gesture on part of the Indian federation to appease the touring team.
Al Jazeera repeatedly contacted the Indian federation for comment but when questions regarding the development of women’s game and the promised league were put forward, the federation chose not to respond.
The lack of attention to women’s football is startling considering the national team’s recent performance and ranking. The Indian men’s team, with all of its ISL stars and money, is ranked 167th out of 209 teams.
The women, meanwhile, sit at number 56 out of the 177 teams. They also broke into the top 50 in 2013 but dropped out again due to a lack of international fixtures.
Football has gained popularity among young girls but it is not being translated on the bigger stage and Chauhan believes it is due to a lack of player development.
“Once you have played at a certain level, what’s the next step? For a start, the authorities can start developing facilities for girls at the bottom and slowly move up the ladder.”
According to her, there is a high level of participation but it is not utilised properly. Based on their talent and skills, some girls come to the top but then they quit because they don’t have anything to look forward to.
“I have seen so many girls quit football after school as once they reach senior level but aren’t selected for the national side, they have nowhere else to go and improve themselves.”
But it can’t be all doom and gloom for a team that’s ranked much higher than other regional countries?
According to Chauhan, the playing conditions have improved since she first kicked a ball in terms of job security for girls who make it to the national side.
“Most of the girls come from underdeveloped states where basic amenities and education are seen as privileges so for them to draw a monthly income from government departments such as the police force or railways is a big enough reward for their footballing talent,” says Chauhan, speaking in a manner that belies her young age.
“I am lucky to come from a family that was able to give me better education so my aspirations are bigger than just finding a government job. I don’t want to settle at that. My main aim for seeking a degree in sports management was to go back to India at some stage and work for the development of women’s football.”
For now, however, Chauhan is not even sure if she will be able to finish her first season at WHLFC as her student visa expires in three months and her expenses are paid for by her parents back in India.
WHLFC are hoping to help sort one part of the problem, the club does not pay for her contributions as is the case with all third tier English women’s league clubs.
But despite London’s increasing rent, a sportsperson’s dietary, fitness and travel expenditures, and a future that hinges on several ifs and buts, Chauhan is confident of turning her dreams into reality.
Follow Hafsa Adil on Twitter: @hafsa_adil