For too long now, women in sports have been treated like unwelcome guests at a party keen on keeping it an old boys’ club. But who decides a girl’s place? It’s 2020 and women are showing up, showing off their moves, and showing that much-needed middle finger to sexism in sports.
Equality is tackling its way to the frontlines of the football field too. The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup championship set several viewership records, with FIFA estimating a total global audience of 1 billion spectators. Closer to home, the Indian Women's National Football team jumped six places to reach rank 57 worldwide—a hundred places higher than the Men’s team which ranked 157. Despite this, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) didn’t bother to hold one of the most important Women’s Football tournaments—the National Football Championship—for four years between 2011 and 2014, and cancelled it again in 2018.
But the AIFF’s attitude, while detrimental, hasn’t been enough to slow down the momentum in women’s football. Private organisations and NGOs are taking up the cause and giving impetus to equality on the field. Enter A Girl’s Place—an initiative of the Forca Goa Foundation in collaboration with Mumbai-based NGO, O.R.B (Object. Rise. Burn)—which seeks to create equal opportunity, call out stereotypes and assert the role of women in sport. The initiative ropes in 16 schools across Goa to provide grassroots level football training to girl students. AIFF certified football coaches and equipment are provided to each centre and weekly training sessions are held all through the year. Over 1,500 kids across the state between the ages 6-14 are part of the programme.
To spread awareness about the initiative, Goa-based visual artist and photographer Rhea Gupte spent time with a few girls training with Forca Goa Foundation’s grassroots programme, and took photographs of the footballers—intimate portraits that highlight their individual strength in the face of a seemingly impossible battle against sexism in the sport.
“All of them had really interesting and different stories,'' Gupte tells VICE. “Some of them had grown up playing football with their guy friends, but never had the chance to play on a team in a structured way. Others had faced opposition and reluctance from families who didn’t want them to play. One of them is actually now a coach and is training younger girls to play. As someone who grew up playing sports, I know that I couldn’t envision a future in it back then; it was a distant dream. We have such a long way to go, but I’m sure we’ll get there.”
Josline DSouza, 24
“I remember I used to play with the boys in my primary school, we used to kick around a soft toy.” A fan of Hope Solo, goalkeeper of the US women’s team, Josline has come a long way since, eyeing a career in football today. “There are not a lot of matches or tournaments organised for women. We have about one tournament a year and the rest are friendlies or exhibition games. I also face problems being a goalkeeper as there are no specific coaches or training available.”
Namita Govekar, 16
A Ronaldo fan, Namita started playing football when she was in second grade. “I used to play barefoot with the kids in my school. My coach spotted me one day, he noticed my dedication and put me on the team. In the full year we have only one league in Goa but I do believe there is a future in football as we are being given lots of opportunities now.”
Dikshita Azgaonkar, 15
Inspired by her brother to play, Dikshita took up football in fifth grade. All of 15, she’s already had to face some battles. “My dad was not letting me go for practice which is why I also struggled with my skill level.” Despite this, she is optimistic about the sport catching on. “I want a career in football,” the Ronaldo fan asserts.
Samartha Shirodkar, 18
Playing for FC Goa women’s team for the past year, Samartha found inspiration in her school P.T teacher who encouraged her to take up football. She laments the lack of a proper football academy. “That is essential for us to hone our game. Boys have an academy but we girls don’t,” she says. Her parents however, have been supportive and Samartha truly believes that with putting in the hard work, she can definitely look forward to a promising football career.
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