Alakhpura, India – It’s 2:30pm and a road in Alakhpura, a village in Haryana state nestled between cotton and wheat fields, is abuzz with dozens of girls, some on bicycles, on their way to a football field next to the only school.
The all-girl Alakhpura FC team, funded by contributions from villagers, practise playing football twice a day – at 5:30am before school starts and after classes end.
“There is no let off here,” says the team’s coach, 37-year-old Sonika Bijaria. “We practise twice every day, even on Sundays. And every member of the village makes sure we have things we need in place.”
Bijaria puts the players through their paces and picks her best 11 for the game.
The opponents are expected to arrive at any moment. Just as everything is set, the away team’s bus breaks down. They won’t be able to make it.
Instead of giving her players the day off, Bijaria gets the boys’ football team from the school to give the girls the game they had prepared for.
Alakhpura, a village of about 2,000 people, has become a hub of young and promising female footballers, many of whom have represented the state and the country.
The footballing revolution has helped Alakhpura form its own identity, different from the rest of the state. Haryana has the worst gender ratio in India and crimes against women are rising.
Last year, the Alakhpura villagers officially registered the team with the All India Football Federation. They also crowdsourced funds among themselves to cover the team’s expenses.
Sanjay Singh, Alakhpura FC’s secretary, says whenever the team needs financial support, the entire village comes forward.
“Some will give 100 rupees ($1.35), others may give 5,000 rupees ($68) depending on what they have. We want our girls to play. After all, they have made us all proud.
“We have divided the responsibilities of the club among some of the villagers, but every single person comes forward we need them.”
The teammates first caught attention when they won the national inter-school competition Subroto Cup in 2014. In 2016, they won the trophy again and in 2017, reached the semi-final of the Indian Women’s League.
Currently, nine Alakhpura FC players are also on the Haryana state women’s team. A dozen others have represented India at international tournaments.
“When the state team selection take place most of the players are from Alakhpura. This makes others jealous,” says Tamana, who plays in the state’s under-19 team.
Satbeer Singh is a wheat farmer and the proud father of 17-year-old Ritu and Nishu, 19, who are in the Haryana squad.
But before the Alkapura team’s success, Singh says, parents would hesitate to let their daughters out of the house alone.
“It was seen as a bad thing if your daughters were seen loitering around in the streets,” he said.
Goverdan Das, a former sports teacher at the village school, laid the foundations for Alakhpura FC in 2008.
“When we started, I couldn’t have imagined our players would achieve this level of success without proper infrastructure or training,” he said.
Das used to train male pupils. But one day, a few girls approached him and asked for something to do. He turned them away.
“Girls playing was seen as a negative thing. So, I just wanted to stay away from it,” he said.
But the girls were persistent. Every day for two weeks, they approached him with the same request.
Das finally caved in and handed them an old football. However, he still didn’t want to coach them.
“For the next 18 months, I stayed away from them. But the girls would come on their own every day and start playing. I noticed there were improving much faster than the boys’ Kabaddi team, and I thought to myself, ‘Why am I not giving them the same education as the boys?’ This is my job after all,” he recalls.
After a change of heart, Das took the girls to an inter-district schools’ competition in 2008, where they were knocked out in the first round.
After a year of training under Das, the team won the competition.
“I have never played professional football, so I wasn’t good at the technical part, but I taught them the importance of hard work and discipline,” says Das.
“If some parents said ‘no’, I would take my daughter there and explain to them that there is no shame attached to women playing. And in fact, they should take pride in what their daughter could achieve.”
If you go to any house in the village right now, you won't find a single girl at home. Their parents now push them to play.
When the team had to travel outside the state, Das would take the village chief to assure parents. Later on, his wife would also accompany him.
Das says it was important to make parents feel comfortable and bring more girls to the playground.
Today, coach Bijaria says, every parent wants their daughter to be selected for the Indian team.
“If you go to any house in the village right now, you won’t find a single girl at home. Their parents now push them to play.”
Midfielder Poonam, 16, and her sister Priyanka, 14, are one of three pairs of siblings recently awarded with a monthly scholarship of 2,000 rupees ($26.96) by the government for achievements in inter-school competitions.
The occasionally watch international teams like Juventus FC on the TV. But their footballing idol is much closer to home – Alakhpura FC’s 20-year-old Sanju Yadav.
Yadav who started playing football in 2010, has played for the national team eight times and scored three goals in those games. “Sanju didi got a job. She also travels around the world with the team. I also want to be like that,” says Poonam, “So, we practise every day to get better.”