How often do you get Bend It Like Beckham references?

“It happens a lot," chuckles Aditi Chauhan over the phone from London, UK. “In fact, they even invited me for the Bend It Like Beckham musical when they heard about me."

The cult movie of the noughties hit London’s West End in May, none of its vivacity lost in translation on stage. About three months later, Indian football found a new protagonist when Aditi signed on as a goalkeeper for the West Ham United Ladies. The 23-year-old from New Delhi is currently only one of two Indians, Fulham FC’s Tanvie Hans being the other, to play for an English club.

“It is a third-division club, but it is still West Ham United, that’s a big name, so I feel like me playing there is a big step forward for women’s football in India," says Aditi, whose team plays in the Women’s Premier League—Southern Division.

Aditi’s story is the stuff of football fairy tales; the journey from New Delhi to the heart of the English capital would have undoubtedly been arduous, and somewhat unexpected. But to be fair, it doesn’t sound half as dramatic as the movie. At least the level-headed, soft-spoken Aditi isn’t interested in making it sound so.

She rarely met with any resistance at home for choosing football, nor did she have to fight cultural clichés, which provide most of the laughs in the movie/musical. Unlike the film’s rebellious heroine Jess Bhamra, Aditi did not have posters of a bald David Beckham plastered on the walls. They were left rather empty, though now she has come to idolize Germany and Bayern Munich “sweeper-keeper" Manuel Neuer.

Staying true to the anxieties of all Indian parents, however, Aditi’s folks have warned her “not to neglect studies". As long as she stuck to that brief, she was allowed to pursue any interest.

Aditi Chauhan. Photo: Rob Griffith/AP
Aditi Chauhan. Photo: Rob Griffith/AP

When she was in class IX, in 2008, Aditi first tried her hands at football.

“There were Delhi football trials going on and my coach (Anil Yadav) asked me to attend it. I was playing basketball then and he reckoned that I had the upper-body strength, ball-grip and the jump to try out as a goalkeeper." Once the chance meeting led her to football, there was no going back. Aditi was selected for the Delhi under-19 team at the age of 15.

Two years later, she was in national reckoning and made it to the Indian team for the 2012 South Asian Football Federation (Saff) Women’s Championships in Sri Lanka, which the team won.

“Of course, playing for India is the biggest honour. But the fact is that there are no opportunities for women in football beyond the school and college level," she says. There isn’t a single football league in India for women, and international matches are few and far between. The dropout rate, after school and university, is naturally high.

There wasn’t much on the horizon, but Aditi took it one day at a time.

Her fitness trainer of six years and mentor Jagdev Chauhan (not related to her) recalls the countless early mornings in the Delhi chill when he used to put her through the paces.

“When Aditi first started training with me, about six years ago, she wasn’t the fittest athlete I had met," says Jagdev, who runs the Om Fitness Academy in the Capital.

“But she was by far the most dedicated. There used to be days when there were just the two of us training. Every sport, discipline, uses different muscle groups. We really worked hard on strengthening her lower body. Since she is a goalkeeper, she has to jump high, and on the descent the weight-bearing joints take a pounding. We did a lot of agility drills, also drills to improve hand-eye coordination to reduce reaction times. She was the perfect student, she would never say no to hard work."

Till that point, it was hard work for hard work’s sake.

“Honestly, I never really thought that I would be playing football in England," says Aditi. “My mom used to ask, ‘Why do you have to get up early every day and go for training when there are no upcoming matches or India camp?’ But I worked really hard in India, five-six days a week. I hadn’t thought about football as a career but I loved the sport and I just wanted to improve at it every day."

Jagdev, a former India under-19 wicketkeeper, admits that there was no concrete plan in place but they always trained as if preparing for “international level" competition.

To pursue a career in sport, Aditi moved to the UK last year and earned a master’s degree in sports management from Loughborough University. She played for the university team.

“After university, I got an internship with (sports and outdoor gear brand) Decathlon and moved to London. I gave trials for Millwall (Lionesses) FC, but I couldn’t play for them since I am on a student visa and cannot play for first- or second-division clubs. The goalkeeping coach there, Julian Roberts, told me that even West Ham, which is a third-division club, was looking for goalkeepers, so I tried out with them and they took me on."

Aditi signed a one-year contract with the West Ham United Ladies in August. Technically, Hans, who also hails from Delhi, was the first Indian in the English League since she signed on with the Tottenham Hotspur reserve side in 2013, but she has a British passport and was not allowed to represent India.

The news of Aditi being selected for West Ham received great attention in England.

“Yeah, people here are really surprised to see an Indian playing football. Even the Asian community here is not very active in sport. It does make me feel special. Being an Indian definitely helped me stand out in the trials. But as far as being the first-choice keeper for West Ham (is concerned), I have earned that place."

She is one of the crowd-pullers at West Ham now. The club put out a special message in Hindi after signing her and Aditi is one of the players featured on their Facebook homepage. In only her third month at the club, she earned the “Women in Football" award at the Asian football awards ceremony at the iconic Wembley Stadium.

“She is extremely professional," says her teammate, Danniella Ritson, in an email exchange. “But does have quite a bit of banter too!

“I had played against several Indian players (at university), however none had the same ability as Adi (Aditi)," adds the 20-year-old midfielder. “I see Aditi as a very disciplined young lady. She has just finished her master’s degree, and to me this speaks volumes about the type of person she is; to obtain a master’s while playing football at this level takes a lot of discipline, commitment and hard work. Also, since I’ve been filling in at right-back recently, we have grown closer as Adi is always offering me advice and encouraging my game, always preaching positivity, which she definitely practises too."

Football is a different ball game in the UK as far as the level of competition, the structure and the opportunities are concerned. Having done her dissertation in women’s football in the UK though, Aditi knew it would not be a bed of roses. The ladies don’t enjoy the superstar status of their male counterparts. England women’s captain Steph Houghton earns £35,000 (around 35 lakh) annually from her club Manchester City, compared to the £37,000 Manchester United pay Wayne Rooney per day. In the leagues, only the top two divisions pay their players. Which means that Aditi, her teammates and the like, have to juggle full-time jobs, football and training, and look for sponsorships.

“What you see is a lot more passion in women’s football, because we don’t play for the money. There is no money!" Aditi had said during a radio interview on BBC Sport. “We work on weekdays, Saturday evening is dedicated to practice, Sunday 2pm is the kick-off, then some rest, then back to work from Monday."

If the multitasking is not difficult enough, she is currently fighting to stay on in the UK and at the club. With her student visa about to expire on 29 January, Aditi may not be able to complete her contract at West Ham or further her football exploits in the UK.

“The thing is only clubs in the top two divisions can sponsor a work visa, and I can’t play for them on a student visa," she sighs about the catch-22 situation. “But our management has been supportive and has put in a word with the parent club (West Ham United), which is one of the registered employers to sponsor a work visa."

It is a curve ball, like those bending Beckham free-kicks, that is bound to test her defences.