At 4.30 in the afternoon on an overcast day, a large, fallow field on the outskirts of Ranchi turns into a colourful playground. Girls as young as 5, in frayed T-shirts and shorts, teenage girls in bright, festive salwar kameez or frilly skirts, and a handful of girls in full kit—green striped jerseys, black shorts, and boots. They have one thing in common—all of them are kicking footballs.

Manisha Tirkey stands out in her black jersey, not only for her strong built, but also equally for her deft feints. An abruptly-dropped shoulder to the right, a quick step over, and she’s running clear with the ball.

Not so fast. Kusum Kumari chases. She is tiny, but quick. She tries to slide in to take the ball away, misses, and tumbles in a heap of laughter.

By now you’ve probably heard about the football girls of Yuwa, back after making waves at two football tournaments in Spain this July. They made it to the semi-finals of the Donosti Cup that was held from 1-6 July at San Sebastian and is one of the world’s biggest tournaments for school-going children, and won a bronze medal at the Gasteiz Cup, another tournament for school-age children, which was held from 7-13 July at Vitoria-Gasteiz.

Yuwa team members revel on a beach in San Sebastian, Spain

Kusum’s house is barely a kilometre from the makeshift training ground, a small mud hut with a tiled roof in Hutup village. Hutup is the base for Yuwa, a not-for-profit organization that trains over 200 girls and around 50 boys between the ages of 5 and 17 in football, and provides coaching in English and math. It also holds a range of workshops—everything from learning-based fun and games for the younger children to gender and violence discussions for the older girls.

Kusum’s house got electricity just over a year back, but that did not stop her from topping her class, being a bit of a math whiz, and a feisty footballer.

Her parents are subsistence farmers, her elder brother works as a driver in Ranchi, and her sister, 19, is in college. Kusum joined the Yuwa ranks in 2009, when she saw some of her friends playing football, and her parents were supportive.

“My parents were very happy when I went to Spain," she says.

This parental support was not always a given, and still isn’t. When Yuwa began in 2009, most parents were not ready to let their daughters out to play. Who will help them with housework? With the cooking? With working in the fields? Or more disquieting concerns: What if the girls are trafficked?

The Yuwa team (in green) in action at the Donosti Cup

It’s one of the reasons Franz Gastler, 31, from Minnesota, US, started Yuwa. A Boston University graduate, Gastler came to India in 2007 as a business consultant with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). By the summer of 2008, looking for new challenges, Gastler joined an NGO, Krishi Gram Vikas Kendra, in Jharkhand, which runs education programmes.

“I moved into a mud hut in a rural village, and I was completely fascinated by that life," Gastler says over the phone from San Francisco, US. “One of the first things that struck me was that the boys all go out to play, while the girls work."

While working at the NGO, one of Gastler’s students told him she wanted to play football. That simple request set Yuwa into motion. Gastler, with three of his American friends, pooled in enough money to kick-start the programme in 2009.

Convincing parents to let their daughters go and play was the first major hurdle. But once that barrier was crossed, success came almost immediately. In less than a year, 13 of Yuwa’s girls made it to Jharkhand’s age-group state teams, and seven of those made it to the Under-13 state team, whose ranking shot to 4 from 20th place.

(From left) Kusum and Nilmoni Kumari with the trophy they won for finishing third in the Gasteiz Cup. Photo: Diwakar Prasad/Hindustan Times

“What I love most is that when these girls come to play, they have no inhibitions," Kalawati says. “Every day, they give everything they have on the ground—running, diving, laughing, falling—isn’t it fantastic to be here?"

Outside of the ground, the girls have the odds stacked against them. Most families don’t expect them to finish schooling. Fifteen is the common age for marriage, and they are expected to be bound by the strict boundaries of housework and farm work.

“Abuse and apathy. Those are the biggest challenges for the girls here," Gastler says. “They are ignored. Nothing that is intended for them comes to them. They are jeered and taunted for wearing shorts, or playing with boys."

Girls from Yuwa, an NGO that runs a football and education programme in Jharkhand, at their training ground. Photo: Diwakar Prasad/Hindustan Times
Girls from Yuwa, an NGO that runs a football and education programme in Jharkhand, at their training ground. Photo: Diwakar Prasad/Hindustan Times

“The difference in how they are treated in Jharkhand and how they were treated in Spain is so vast that you can’t begin to compare," Gastler says.

By all accounts, Spain was a riot. The Yuwa girls, with their combative skills on the field, and their effortless charm and infectious joy off it, were treated like royalty.

They became the darlings of the local media, went for a tour of Real Madrid’s training ground, met the captain Xabi Prieto of Primera Liga team Real Sociedad, and a photograph of the girls in traditional red-and-white saris during the opening ceremony of the Donosti Cup became an emblem of sorts for the tournament.

The canteen staff at the hostel they were staying in even started attending their matches.

“We loved it so much," Kusum says. “It was not difficult to make friends even though we did not speak their language. We always had people translating for us. We would play matches in the morning, and then go swim and play in the sea. Then we would practise or play in the evening again, and then go to parties."

The levels of excitement were so high that the girls had to be threatened every night to go to sleep: “Whoever doesn’t sleep on time tonight will not get to play tomorrow".

“But we still kept awake till 2-3 in the morning, just talking about our day, all that we had seen, how we were playing," Kusum says. “We were too happy to sleep."

The only thing that did not agree with Kusum was the food. “Potatoes in an omelette? Eeeck!"

Like Kusum, Supriya Kumari too had never been outside India. In fact, most girls had never been to Ranchi even, barely half an hour from their villages. Supriya saw everything with brand new eyes—her first close-up view of an aeroplane, her first time flying inside one, her first time on an escalator (she had to be dragged away from the unfettered joy of running up and down moving staircases), and her first plunge into the ocean.

“We would swim all day, sleep on the beach, swim again," Supriya says. “We even went on a ship!"

Supriya, 13, is from Rukka village, close to Hutup, and has been part of Yuwa for three years. Her parents heard of Yuwa’s football programme and that they teach English and math for free, so they sent her there. Supriya’s father is an accountant in a rice mill in Rukka, and her mother is training to be a teacher.

“My parents love the fact that I play," she says. “My father has always wanted me to do something good, study well, learn new things. He also put my mother through school and college. She has finished her BA now, and is applying for a B.Ed."

Gastler has big plans for the future: a “centre of excellence" for the seriously talented footballers, with better facilities and better nutrition; better education facilities (classrooms are being built on rented land in Hutup, next to the Yuwa office); and a small stadium for the girls to play tournaments.

“The quality of their education leaves them woefully unprepared for a good job," Gastler says. “Their nutrition levels are poor. If these girls grew up where I grew up, they would be applying to Stanford (University), Harvard (University), or Yale (University). Here they fight for the absolute basics."