The ‘supergoats’ can bend it a fair way. Eighteen of them just got back from Spain, where they reached the quarters of a local tournament and slotted into third place in another. But who are the ‘supergoats’ and what game is this that they are playing? Well, for that you’d have to travel to Ormanjhi, some 25 kms from Ranchi, to a group of village girls who started playing football only some three years back but are already creating waves.
“We don’t even have a proper ground for them to practice,” laughs coach Sandeep Chhetry who accompanied the girls. “In Spain, they were playing on natural grass and synthetic grass.” Their initial diffidence gave way soon enough because they were treated like royalty, Chhetry tells Outlook over the phone.
Food, though, was an issue. The girls are used to eating rice gruel early in the morning (which sustains them through the day). Things like bread and cheese were a tad alien but the hosts, thoughtfully, went out of their way to arrange rice for breakfast. Franz Gastler, the US law graduate responsible for putting together the team, says “their opponents were noticeably bigger; many of our girls were playing together for the first time and that too in front of such a large number of spectators”. But they persevered, and won some. In the Donosti Cup, said to be Spain’s biggest tournament for budding footballers, the Yuwa India under-14 girls team made it to the quarters in a pool of 36 international teams. And at the venerated Gasteiz Cup, again pitted against an international field, they took bronze.
A more memorable moment off the field was when, recalls Franz, “the girls were walking through the streets in San Sebastian and they passed a young boys’ football team. One of them began to chant “India! India!” and soon all the boys joined him. They weren’t jeering the girls or doing it in jest. They were actually cheering them.” It wasn’t something the girls were too used to at home and some of them were overwhelmed.
Back home, the supergoats of Ormanjhi are now celebrities. They have had an audience with the chief minister at which a stadium was pledged within six months, besides cash awards for team members. Union minister for rural development Jairam Ramesh has also pitched for the football field, alloting Rs 21 lakh from his MPLADS funds. The TV channels and newspapers went to town about every little detail of their lives and the girls can’t stop smiling. (Another small but significant victory has been the suspension of the local block official who had jeered and even slapped some of the girls when they approached him for birth certificates for their passports and visa.)
But why ‘supergoats’? Goats, explains Rose Thompson, an American on a fellowship who spent several weeks at Ormanjhi, are ubiquitous in the fields where the girls practice. It’s actually a grazing ground and the players have to tackle the goats too. On a more serious plane, goats, she adds, are “fast, wily, agile and persistent to the point of being annoying”. The girls share these traits and hence the sobriquet.
But the club ‘Yuwa India’, isn’t just another football academy. Winning tournaments and even football was initially just incidental. The team game was just another conduit to instil confidence, build team spirit and promote discipline among the girls. Schooling is important here, so too is attendance. The girls learn English, attend classes on hygiene and sex education and, today, even dream of a better life. They had never thought of higher education, going abroad or having a job earlier, says Gastler. But now they believe nothing is beyond their reach. Football has even helped the girls resist child marriages. While earlier, most girls in the area were getting married by the time they were 15, now marriage before 18 is quite rare.
Gastler is a Harvard Law School graduate who had never played soccer before he arrived in Ormanjhi to work for an NGO and stayed to teach English to the girls. An ice hockey player himself, one of the girls initially requested that he teach her how to play football. And that triggered an idea which has transformed a small hamlet and hundreds of lives. He agreed to coach them provided there was a team of at least 15 girls and also provided they turn up for practice and classes without fail. Starting with 15 girls in 2009, Yuwa India now has some 250-odd girls attending practice sessions. Between 4-6 in the evening, after they are through their chores for the day, rows of girls can be seen lining up, doing their drills and playing practice matches.
Initially, it was no easy task convincing the wary villagers. Many of them were hostile, some were even convinced that he was out to convert the girls. Others suspected that he was part of a trafficking racket. The mothers were protesting that they couldn’t afford to let the girls waste their time playing football and learning English. Who would collect the cow dung, fetch the water, do the cooking…? Significantly, Gastler observed that the tribal boys were indifferent and refused to join unless they were promised T-shirts and jerseys. Indeed, the first lot of jerseys distributed to the girls were actually cornered by their fathers and brothers.
Gastler put in his own money and that of a few friends back in the US into the project. (But he wisely decided that the girls would have to pay one-third of the price of the boots.) The experiment appears to have paid off. Three of the girls, Shivani Toppo, Neeta Kumari and Manisha Tirkey represented the national squad that toured Sri Lanka in March. Two girls have returned from a football camp in Washington DC (sponsored by the US state department). Seventeen of them have played for the state while six of them travelled to Mumbai to train girls in Dharavi, where Gastler has set up a branch of his fledgling foundation.
Jharkhand, reminds Thompson wryly, isn’t the happiest place on earth. In some small way, the Yuwa experiment, exciting in its simplicity, has provided a ray of hope and a model which can be replicated elsewhere.