Five siblings—four girls and a boy, between the ages of 8-20—leave home for evening practice, holding football boots and bottles of water. As they walk towards the football ground on a hot summer afternoon in Alakhpura, Haryana, the five children are joined by more. Some are trying to tame unruly hair into ponytails, while others are so young that they can barely run.

They banter about school, homework and television soaps. The older girls are talking about the class X board exam results, which were announced earlier in the day. Their laughter is broken occasionally by low-pitched bellowing sounds from buffaloes nearby. By the time they reach the ground near the Government Senior Secondary School, there is a crowd of over 200 children, more than 90% of them girls, aged 4-20.

As Anay Bai, 15, enters the ground, someone shouts at her, congratulating her for scoring 76% in the board exams. She smiles back, while changing into her football shoes. Adulation can wait. Anay’s focus right now is on her game, for it has helped the midfielder for Alakhpura FC, which has also represented India at international events, turn around her family’s fortune after her father’s death. She was still a toddler when he passed away. Since she stared playing around six years ago, and winning prizes and scholarships, Anay has pitched in to help her mother, a sanitation worker, build their house. With her prize money, she bought a television and an inverter last year and a refrigerator this year. Football, she believes, is the only thing that will help her secure her future. Her faith is not unfounded. Last year, seven girls from the village, all of whom Anay has played with, secured government jobs in the sports quota.

“I was fascinated by the other girls playing football. I liked the way they kicked the ball and thought I could also do that," says the slender teenager. “Everyone said, ‘How will you play?’ Girls don’t play football, but my mother supported me." She speaks softly and smiles easily. She looks intently when trying to understand a question and glances the other way when she doesn’t want to reply.

Anay’s is not an isolated story. In many ways, hers is the story of football in Alakhpura, in Haryana’s Bhiwani district, about 150km west of Delhi. She is the link between two generations of girls: one that beat the odds to play football and embark on a journey towards a better future, and the other which aspires to do so.

Football has transformed the village, which is home to around 700 families, according to sarpanch Sanjay Chauhan, a former bicycle repair shop owner who also used to repair footballs. “Football has helped them break taboos, secure government jobs and become financially independent. Many of them have even played for India," says Suresh.

Gordhan Dass with Munesh (right) and Tanuja. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Gordhan Dass with Munesh (right) and Tanuja. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

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The girls from Alakhpura school participated in their first district-level competition in 2008 and managed to reach the finals. They won the Subroto Cup—a national-level inter-school competition—in 2014 and 2016 in the U17 category and reached the finals in 2015. In 2016, Alakhpura FC was formed to participate in the inaugural Indian Women’s League (IWL), organized by the All India Football Federation (AIFF). They won the regional qualifiers but lost in the semi-finals to Manipur’s Eastern Union. But, by then, the girls had made their mark on national football.

The biggest draw for these girls is the opportunity to secure a government job through the sports quota. Haryana, a sporting powerhouse, is one of the few states in the country to have a sports policy. In April, the state government approved a new policy proposing out-of-turn appointments in the Haryana Civil Services (HCS) and Haryana Police Services (HPS), apart from Group A, Group B and Group C jobs, to sportspersons who win medals in Olympic games, world championships/Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and other sporting events. Haryana accounted for 22 of India’s 66 medals at the Commonwealth Games and 18 out of 69 medals at the Asian Games this year. In the state, sport is the key to a better future for athletes who come from economically weaker sections of society.

Munesh Kumari from Alakhpura got a job through the sports quota with the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB, one of India’s Central Armed Police Forces) in April 2017. The 21-year-old midfielder has been playing since she was in class IV and, much like Anay, was inspired by other senior players. The daughter of a farmer, Munesh is the eldest of three siblings. While her younger sister, 18, has been playing football for four years now, their brother, 14, doesn’t.

“Boys don’t put in as much effort," says Munesh matter of factly. Among the older children and young adults who play the game in the village, hardly 5% are male.

She recalls a time when parents wouldn’t allow their girls to play football. “There were safety concerns," she says. “Also, the girls who were allowed to go to school were expected to focus on academics rather than sports. Academic excellence was considered the only shot at a good life."

Munesh contributed her first salary (₹23,000) to Alakhpura FC, which, coach Sonika Vijarnia says, was used to buy kits for the children.

Anja Palusevic, a former footballer from Germany, who travels the world as a technical observer for Fifa and Uefa and was in Alakhpura in February for the inauguration of the AIFF-organized Baby League—a globally successful model to develop the game at the grass-roots level—writes in an email that she was “amazed to see the children who were just happy to play and the kind of talent they have. I was also impressed to see that girls and not boys, like in most other countries, are at the centre of such a change."

A girl practising free kicks during a training session. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
A girl practising free kicks during a training session. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

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“Are chhori hai, ke padhaana. Chhoriyaan gobar gherna hai. Aur ke kaam hai? (What is the need to educate girls? They eventually have to do household chores. What else is there for them to do?)," Balbir Singh Jakhar remembers villagers quipping when he decided to enrol his girls in school. The 48-year-old father of girls and a boy sent all of them to school. And when girls in the village started playing football about 10 years ago, he sent his daughters to play too. The eldest one is now married and the third daughter, 17-year-old Sharda who plays forward, is a recipient of the sports ministry’s Khelo India scholarship, which entitles recipients to financial assistance of 8 lakh over five years.

Jakhar, who always dresses in white kurta-pyjamas like other men in the village, has been associated with football in the village for over 10 years now and also serves as the vice-secretary of Alakhpura FC. Animatedly, he narrates the story of how the village got its football ground over tea and sweets. His eyes shine and he breaks into a smile as he peels layers off the story that is rife with caste politics, legal issues, land grab and, finally, a playground for children, which is more than twice the size of a regular football field.

“There were different factions opposing the creation of the ground. Lathis flew, stones were thrown but one day, we put up a wall with 35,000 bricks around the ground," recalls Jakhar, slurping his tea.

Today, the boundary wall is broken in places, making it more accessible, just like the resistance of the villagers against letting girls play has been blunted by their success. All it took was one girl, Manju Kaswa, who played well and, because of it, landed a government job (SSB 2016). “Last year," says Jakhar, “the girls brought in 83 lakh in grants and cash rewards to the village. Seven girls got government jobs in the sports quota."

“Eb to kehwe hain ground pe ja beta, ghar ke karegi. Nahi te sari umr dukh paogi, gobar gheregi. Khelegi to naukri lag jaagi, rojgaar ho jaga (Now parents encourage their girls to play. They say if you play well, you can get a good job, else you will be stuck doing household chores)," he says.

Sitting on a cot with his four daughters, Jakhar resembles another famous father from Haryana who has been at the forefront of encouraging girls to take up sports. But Jakhar is far more lenient with his girls than Mahavir Singh Phogat, whose strict coaching manual is well documented in the 2016 biopic Dangal. What unites the two fathers and, in fact, every other father whose daughter plays a sport in Haryana, is their unconditional support to their girls. But Jakhar credits the success of the girls here to Gordhan Dass who was the physical education teacher at the village school till last year.

“A big reason behind the success of the club is Gordhan masterji," says Jakhar. “It was masterji who encouraged the girls to play. One girl led to another and it became a team. And then they started getting jobs in the railways, CRPF, and it became a career-defining thing," says Jakhar.

Dass would take his wife on tours if there was no female staff accompanying them, says Jakhar. “All his salary went into football and its infrastructure. And now, Sonika (Vijarniya, the coach) is the same."

In 2006, Dass was transferred to the Government Senior Secondary School in Alakhpura from Barsi village. “I had not thought of getting the girls to play at all. It was a taboo then," says the 46-year-old former kabaddi player. He, in fact, put together a boys’ kabaddi team and focused on their game.

But it was a co-education school and the girls would pester him to allow them to play a sport. Just to get them off his back, Dass one day tossed a football at them. And that was the beginning.

For the next couple of years, the girls played, unsupervised, helping each other and getting better with practice. Teachers from other schools would come and compliment Dass and encourage him to take things forward.

There were problems though. “If you train girls even today, people doubt your character. And once that happens, you are as good as dead in Haryana," says Dass, over a drag of a hookah at his home in his native Jita Kheri village, about 8km from Alakhpura.

But Dass had a plan. Much like wrestlers Chandgi Ram and Mahavir Singh Phogat, he took along his daughter Neetu, who is now 22, and went from door to door in Alakhpura, asking families to send their daughters to play. “I told them my daughter will be playing too," he says. Some families agreed. He finally got a team together and a revolution was afoot. The girls kept improving with each tournament.

Their success came to the state government’s notice, and a full-time coach (Vijarniya) was appointed in 2014.

Neelam Chawriya attempts a diving save. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Neelam Chawriya attempts a diving save. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

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Smoke emanates from mud chulhas as the sun rises the next morning. Women sweep courtyards as men set up cots for the morning hookah baithak. Girls are already leaving for the morning practice session. As elderly men smoke and drink tea, women feed, milk and groom the buffaloes. In most households, the animals are often more pampered than the children. They are washed twice a day in a pond adjacent to the playground. Their milk is also the most important source of nutrition for the young footballers of Alakhpura.

Most villagers are vegetarian. And vegetables are so scarce (because of poor soil quality) that they are sold in provisional stores, alongside cooking oil, bathing soap and incense sticks. “Therefore, milk and milk-based products such as butter become the most important sources of nutrition," says 34-year-old Vijarniya, a former player herself. “In many of the households, girls don’t get proper nutrition. It is a big challenge. But at least there is plenty of milk here."

At the football ground, girls start with exercises and drills and then get into practice matches. Dass is visiting them today and there is a sense of excitement as he hasn’t visited in over six months, since his transfer back to Barsi late last year.

As Dass walks in, a little before 8am, the girls run to touch his feet. He asks Munesh, who has come home on vacation, to show him the correct technique to kick a football.

“You have to use the inside of your boot-front to send it left, and use the outside to send it to the right," Munesh says as she demonstrates the move with her right foot. Dass tries it a couple of times, fumbles and then sends a long ball to his right. Everyone starts laughing.

“What these girls don’t realize is that I have learnt more from them than they probably have from me," says Dass. “I was just a PT teacher who couldn’t finish graduation. These girls turned me into a celebrity coach."

There are some inherent problems though. Take, for instance, the lack of regular funding. “Funds are always a problem. One football itself costs around 1,000. Then, there is competition. When it comes to representing the state or country, only the best players make the cut," says Vijarniya.

Dass says he wants to create another Alakhpura elsewhere. “Alakhpura FC happened because of the support of the villagers. In most other places in Haryana, girls still can’t play."

“It took me a decade to put Alakhpura on the country’s sporting map. I have 10 years left before retirement. I intend to make the most of them," says Dass.

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