Heat. Camels tied to small trees. Bare-chested men sleeping next to brown bushes. Barren roads and mirages. Squinting eyes and migraines.

Nothing typifies this part of northern Gujarat better than the scorching heat that engulfs the region for most of the year. It is relentless and unforgiving.

Yet 14-year-old Janki Thakor is unfazed. Her big toe is bandaged with a piece of cloth to protect a blister. Neither she nor the other 20-odd girls—all former or current students of the Mahadevpura Primary School in the village of Sampra—who are chasing a worn-out ball on the burning ground have anything on their mind other than football.

They are all members of the “Patan Girls"—a group of talented footballers who have taken the sport by storm in Gujarat. They have been part of Patan teams that are currently champions in all three categories in the inter-district football championships (sub-junior, junior and senior) and were an integral part of the Gujarat Under-16 and Under-14 sides that reached the semi-finals of this year’s National Championships.

opening play

“These girls are so physically fit because they work on their farms throughout the day. They are willing to play all day long as we give them the football," explains Rangatji Thakor, the schoolteacher responsible for Patan’s rise as a football nursery.

It all started in 2010, when Rangatji learnt that the sport would be part of the inaugural edition of the Khel Mahakumbh—a sports festival started by then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi.

“I had a football that was given to me by a member of the Gujarat Police. I gave that ball to the kids and they learnt the sport on their own. We won the district-level competition that year itself and then went on to take part in the Khel Mahakumbh with no proper kit or shoes. We didn’t win but the officials who saw us play asked me to keep supporting these girls and that’s how football in Sampra began," says Rangatji.

The girls didn’t take much time to grow into the game. In the 2013-14 edition of the Khel Mahakumbh, teams from Patan won the Under-13 and Under-17 categories while finishing third in the open category.

More girls from the village, which has a population of around 7,000, began taking up the sport as Rangatji and his colleague Virambhai Thakor began a daily training schedule from 5-7pm. The rapid rise in the number of footballers meant that the ground in front of the primary school was no longer enough. Rangatji identified a piece of land adjacent to the school, with overgrown cacti and bushes. He used his own money to level the surface into a playing ground.

“It is not the perfect ground though. The shrubs and plants in the area mean our balls keep getting punctured. But these girls know how to stitch a puncture also now," he says with a smile.

Talented and homesick

“This year, we organized three girls championships in the state and all three were won by the Patan girls," says Gulab Chauhan, secretary of the Gujarat State Football Association (GSFA), at his office at TransStadia, the plush-looking multipurpose stadium in Ahmedabad. He was busy with the preparations for the final of the Intercontinental Cup—a four-nation football tournament that was held at TransStadia from 7-19 July. The tournament—involving the men’s teams of India, North Korea, Tajikistan and Syria—witnessed a healthy turnout, with Gujarat defying the popular perception that it was a cricket-only state.

“It has been a great year for football in the state. Our girls reached the semi-finals in two categories of the National Championships—a first for Gujarat. And with the success of the Intercontinental Cup, the whole country knows our football is growing," he says.

Sampra has been at the forefront of this mini football revolution. Given its success, the GSFA shifted 21 of Sampra’s talented players to the Sports Authority of Gujarat (SAG) facilities for girls in Himatnagar, started in 2017.But the girls found it difficult to adjust and slowly started dropping out to return to their village.

“These are girls whose parents are farmers. Yes, there is a good school and top facilities available at Himatnagar but they were always wondering who will be there to help their parents. So they finally went back," explains Chauhan.

Shilpa Thakor, a player who had moved to the SAG campus, says: “We want to live closer to our families. The facilities in Himatnagar were very good but we want something like that in Patan so that all of us can play football together."

According to Chauhan, the GSFA has plans for a football academy in Patan district, but both Rangatji and his fellow coach Virambhai would rather get a qualified coach.

“Neither of us are trained coaches. Whatever little we know is through watching TV. The senior girls who go to these camps come back to the academy and then teach the younger ones. They take care of themselves. Both of us just stand and watch every evening. But it would be great if they (the GSFA) can arrange for a qualified coach in the region. That will definitely improve the standards," says Virambhai.

Binding a community

“When I joined as a teacher here in 2005, there were only 17 students in class VII. There were very few girls and they were never encouraged to study further. But ever since Rangatji introduced football in the school, the number of students has steadily increased," says Paradhiya Varshaben, a social sciences teacher at the Mahadevpura school.

A training session at the Mahadevpura school ground. Photo: Virambhai Thakor
A training session at the Mahadevpura school ground. Photo: Virambhai Thakor

“Now the conditions for girls have changed and at the school we have more girls than boys. Earlier, the girl students were reluctant to even join class VIII but due to football, they are going to colleges too," she adds proudly.

The community has played a key role in harnessing the girls’ talent, with parents from a conservative society supporting their children’s development. This has to do with the trust everyone has in Rangatji, who also hails from the village.

“I moved to Mahadevpura in 2006. I remember how Rangatji used to give cricket training to children back then. Everyone here loves and trusts him. That is why parents have had no problems sending their girl children with him to play football. We know he is like a parent and a teacher to them," says Dasharthji Thakor, Rangatji’s elder brother. His daughter studied till class VII in the Mahadevpura school and was an active part of the football team.

Football has changed Sampra. The success of the girls has united the village and made it aware of the potential of the game. “We are what we are because of the girls," say the villagers, starting with the school’s teachers. According to them, Patan’s Patola (double Ikat woven silk saris) and the mighty Rani ki Vav stepwell have taken a back seat to their footballers. “We have not even seen an aerodrome in our lives but our girls got an opportunity to fly from Ahmedabad to Mumbai in a flight. For our village, that is a big deal," adds Dasharthji, who also teaches at the school.

Rangatji Thakor (on bike) with girls from the school. Photo: Nevin Thomas
Rangatji Thakor (on bike) with girls from the school. Photo: Nevin Thomas

Mahadevpura’s footballing tale is an example of how community-driven sports initiatives are key in a country that is so culturally diverse. Local leaders such as Rangatji, who understand the demography, continue to play a huge role in identifying and nurturing talent—be it for a Hima Das in Assam or a Mariyappan Thangavelu in Tamil Nadu.

But the girls’ stint at the Himatnagar SAG academy and their unwillingness to be away from their families is also indicative of the fact that building academies isn’t everything.

Thirty-five girls from the Mahadevpura school have, till date, been part of the state team in the National Championship in various age categories. Ten of them have represented the state seven times. Shilpa, a former student of the school, was a stand-by for the Indian national team.

So the talent is there. But the federation may have to go to the villages.

There are many things you notice as you make your way to Sampra. Dry, barren fields, patches of land with cacti. And the overwhelming feeling that the desert isn’t too far away.

And the heat. That dry, relentless heat.

But the village is no longer known for its heat. Their girls are their stars, and football has well and truly taken over.

Nevin Thomas is a sports journalist who also works closely with grass-roots football academies across the country.

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