Manisha Kalyan: First Indian footballer to play in UEFA Champions League football

Hoshiyapur, India: Manisha Kalyan’s sparse home and village shows no sign that it will one day produce one of India’s top female soccer players.

But Kalyan is a tough girl and on Thursday the 20-year-old Cypriot champion Apollon Ladies became the first Indian player to play in the UEFA Women’s Champions League in the first qualifying round.

Kalyan’s transformation from a teenage athlete to a sought-after professional footballer happened gradually over a period of more than seven years.

“I like sprinting and basketball. After practice, I used to play football with the boys. One day my coach saw me playing and asked if I wanted to play. I said yes,” Kalyan said in Limassol Ernest told Al Jazeera over the phone.

In November 2021, Kalyan made headlines with a goal for India against Brazil in the Four Nations Championship in Manaus.

Although India lost the match 6-1, Kalyan’s feat went down in the history books.

At the age of 17, she made her senior Indian debut against Hong Kong in January 2019. She scored a hat-trick in India’s 18-0 win over Pakistan in the 2019 AFC U19 Women’s Championship qualifier.

Kalyan also played a key role in India’s 1-0 win over Thailand.

The All India Football Association named her the 2020-21 Rookie Player of the Year. Kalian was named Footballer of the Year for the 2021-22 season earlier this month.

Photo of Manisha Kalyan (right) in the lobby of the free sports dormitory run by Sant Attar Singh Khalsa High School [AP Muhammed Afsal/Al Jazeera]

A 52-year-old coach, Brahmjit Singh, discovered Kalyan’s talent as a physical education teacher at the government secondary school in her village of Muggowal.

“Manisha’s footwork is great. I persuaded the principal to meet her parents. Her father was happy to hear about her talent and allowed me to train her,” Bramjit told Al Jazeera.

Kalyan had to say goodbye to athletics as Brahmjit’s training helped her make the regional team.

“Since then, no other sport has brought me joy other than football,” Kalyan said.

Her father, Narinder Pal, 60, had been working in astrology and real estate, and sold makeup before an accident in 2012 left him hemiplegia.

He received a hospital bill of 800,000 Indian rupees ($15,000 in 2012), which forced him to sell his land.

“I gave her the freedom to choose what she wanted,” he said, sitting in the living room, which is also the bedroom.

“When she said she wanted to play football, I said there was no women’s football in our village. She said she would play alone.”

But Kalyan played soccer with the boys and was not well received by the villagers.

“People started talking and I said: ‘Don’t worry’. Boys and girls have equal rights. Manisha goes to a remote village with the boys team. Ten boys and one girl,” Pal added.

During the men’s tournament, Kalyan tied a towel in her hair to look masculine, but it came loose during the game and she was spotted.

“But no one asked questions, instead, they praised me,” she said.

manisha kalyan family and coach
(From left to right) Coach Brahmjit Singh, sports promoter Tarsem Singh Bhaa, Kalyan’s father Narinder Pal, mother Rajkumari and her eldest sister Sonam [AP Muhammed Afsal/Al Jazeera]

Her mother, Rajkumari, 55, remembers Kalyan as a naughty and stubborn child.

“I never let her do the dishes and laundry. She was always active and loved aloo ka paratha [potato-stuffed Indian bread]. When people talk, I tell them girls are no less. I gave her money for household expenses so she could compete elsewhere,” she told Al Jazeera.

Her eldest sister Sonam said Kalyan didn’t even have the proper football gear.

“She wore worn boots for a long time,” Brahmjit said [her coach] Bought it, it’s a lucky charm. At other times, Teja Singh, a British businessman from the village, offered help. “

Sonam, 32, has worked as a domestic helper and cook. She now works as a security guard at King Edward Public Schools after losing two jobs during the COVID-19 lockdown.

She said Kalyan didn’t shy away from fighting other kids, adding, “We can’t afford her special sports diet, she thrives on homemade food”.

“When she’s serious about the sport, she bikes four kilometers (2.5 miles) a day to the gym in Mahilpur.”

Sant Attar Singh Khalsa High School Free Sports Dormitory
Promotion of football in free sports dormitories [AP Muhammed Afsal/Al Jazeera]

Although she travels a lot, Kalyan says she only finds true joy when she hangs out with people she’s known since childhood.

“I am very close to my family and friends. Besides football, my parents, sisters and education are important things in my life.

“When I was playing for the Border Security Force in the Oorja Cup, an officer asked me if I could play for Kenkre FC in Mumbai in the Indian Women’s League (IWL). I said I would have to get my family’s approval.”

According to Priya PV, head coach of Gokulam FC, her family was initially reluctant to send her to the faraway club, for which Kalyan played for three seasons in the IWL.

“I contacted Vijay Bali of the Punjab Football Association to convince her parents. Women players early in their careers usually don’t turn down local association officials.”

Priya added that when the IWL started, there was a shortage of talent in Gokulam.

“So we looked for them in other states because a lot of clubs there haven’t signed. Some of my colleagues are against making such an offer to a young player. I’ve also thought about her family situation. But of course, as a player, I’m very interested in She’s full of confidence. She’s very obedient and flexible.”

In addition to being poor, Kalyan also had to overcome psychological barriers.

“Earlier this year, I was very frustrated at the Indian camp. I wanted to do my best, but that didn’t happen. There are questions about whether things are done one way or another.”

Her predecessor, India goalkeeper Aditi Chauhan, spoke to her in those days.

“Adi asked what happened to me. When I told her about my fears, she asked me why I started playing. When I said it was to find joy, she told me to go and find joy again. She told me to keep trying, forever Don’t give up. I’m excited again. I’m starting to relive how I started, how I survived, how I got where I am now.”

Government Secondary School Grounds in Muggowal
Government school grounds in Muggowal [AP Muhammed Afsal/Al Jazeera]

Mahilpur is regarded as India’s football nursery, with schools and academies producing hundreds of male players for police, state and national teams.

“Occasionally, girls also become players, but Manisha’s feat surpasses all,” Jaspal Singh, a certified sports coach and principal of Mahilpur SGGS Khalsa Academy, told Al Jazeera.

In Paldi, near the village of Kalyan, Sant Attar Singh Khalsa High School, where Manisha is in Year 9, has a free sports dormitory where dozens of young football players are trained.

“The girls’ practice happened before the boys. Kalyan was never late for the 7am practice. She got to the ground by bike or bus,” recalls principal Shiv Kumar.

A year later, Kalyan represented India U-17.

‘Opportunity to build a career’

Although the Indian women’s team was one of Asia’s leading teams from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, it was quiet until the 2010 SAFF Women’s Championship and the subsequent four championships.

In 2016, AIFF launched the IWL, prompting leading clubs to establish women’s teams.

“Earlier, female players retired after playing a few games for their state and college. Now they have the opportunity to build a career. Audiences, sponsors and media attention are also growing,” sports journalist Hubaib Kurukkanat said.

“The signing of Indian players by foreign clubs is a sign.”

Kurukkanat predicts that Indian women will compete in the soccer World Cup ahead of the men’s team, which could spur growth at the grassroots level.

India is also planning to host the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in October.

As she entered the history books again, Kalyan has remained focused on her personal and team goals.

“One day, I want to play for the biggest club in the world. I also want to see my national team in the World Cup,” said Manisa, who watched religiously as her heroes Brazil Ronaldinho and Argentina Leon Nell Messi’s YouTube video.

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