For Manipur girls Heirangkhongjam Linda Chanu and Lisham Babina Devi, football isn’t merely a sport – it is an obsession. Last year, at the Under-15 South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) women’s championships in Bhutan, Linda and Babina experienced the most thrilling moment of their young lives as part of the Indian team that won the gold medal. It had been a remarkable journey, one that began after they caught the eye at tournaments conducted by Reliance Foundation Youth Sports (RFYS).
In April 2019, the All India Football Federation (AIFF), with the Under-17 Women’s World Cup meant to be played in India in 2020 (since rescheduled to 2021) on the radar, approached RFYS for a list of players born after 2003 who had impressed in tournaments conducted across the country. Players who had participated in RFYS tournaments were spread over 25 centres across India and 240 were identified for six zonal camps.
At these camps, where every expense of the players including travel, food and lodging were covered by RFYS, zonal scouts from the AIFF identified the best talent. 52 players were shortlisted and called up to the final scouting camp in Mumbai, again with their expenses covered by RFYS, where AIFF coach Alex Ambrose identified the final nine. Among those Ambrose chose were Linda and Babina, who earned a spot in the team that represented India.
Linda, the eldest of three siblings, comes from a family of footballers with both her father and grandfather having played the game. However, when she first began to play football, Linda remembers being mocked in the neighbourhood for playing a sport that was supposedly only for boys. A keen athlete, who didn’t just participate but won medals in most sports in school competitions, Linda was disheartened but stayed true to her passion.
Encouraged by coach Oja Khunjanganbi, who hails from the same district as her, Kakching, a determined Linda continued to improve her skills and was soon participating in tournaments across the state. Early exposure came via an Under-14 tournament in Jharkhand in 2018 where Linda tasted defeat, but it only served as motivation to spur her on.
Just a few months later, Linda’s fortunes were destined to change dramatically. As part of the Nilmani English school, she won the inter-school tournament organised by RFYS in her region that earned the team a spot in the East Zone competition in Kolkata. Her robust and aggressive playing style ensured Linda and her team qualified for the national finals in Mumbai at the end of the year. In January 2019, Nilmani were crowned champions of the school girls category opening up doors the then 14 year old had never imagined – a call-up to be part of the Under-17 World Cup camp in Goa, and a few months later in October, as a member of the Indian team that won the Under-15 SAFF women’s Championship in Bhutan.
“I deeply appreciate the role of RFYS in my life,” says a grateful Linda. “All tournaments organised under RFYS were very interesting and provided us players with a lot of incentives and our needs were really looked after. It was at these tournaments that I got inspiration to work harder and I really hope to have more engagements with them as my career progresses.”
Although an unfortunately timed shin injury, suffered during the training camp with the Under-17 World Cup probables in Goa, has dented Linda’s chances of selection, she is fighting the negativity by drawing motivation from the words of coach Khunjanganbi who reminds her, “Failures will lead to success, don’t be deterred by failures.”
Linda, who aspires to be a police officer one day, has joined Eastern Sporting Union in Wankhei, Imphal to ensure she is exposed to senior players and tougher competition. Even while studying for her Standard X board exams, the beautiful game is a constant companion. Her 76-year old doting grandfather has ensured Linda has a football with her in her hostel room for a kick about anytime she feels like it.
Unlike Linda, Babina, who hails from Thoubil district, was initially discouraged by her family from playing football. She remembers being chastised often as she insisted on playing but was undeterred. Little Babina would accompany her elder brother to the ground and would end up playing with boys. Babina had no idea that women’s football is an organised sport as well.
Finding herself under the tutelage of coach Surmala Chanu at the Youth Welfare Club in Langthabal, Babina started to train in the evenings after school. Her father would undertake the one hour journey back and forth with Babina to Langthabal from Thoubal, but once that became arduous, Babina, along with another player stayed at a club member’s house to ensure they got more time to train under coach Surmala Chanu.
Babina’s first exposure to a higher level of competition came at the Under-14 National Girls tournament in 2017. And as Linda’s teammate at Nilmani English School, the petite Babina who terrorised opposing teams in the D, followed the identical trajectory. From winning the local RFYS competition all the way to the RFYS national title in Mumbai, followed by a call up to the Under-17 India trials and the crowning glory – triumphing at the U-15 SAFF championships in Bhutan.
Babina is now eagerly awaiting the opportunity to show her skills at the Under-17 trials scheduled for October in Jharkhand to identify the squad for next year’s World Cup. Her coach Surmala Chanu, with whom she is residing at the moment, has been a pillar of strength. Surmala Chanu is convinced that more tournaments organised on the lines of the ones conducted by RFYS will develop a “competitive spirit for excellence” as mere practice sessions aren’t enough to brush up the skill and technique of players.
“I really appreciate the benefits we enjoy by associating with RFYS,” says the 15-year-old. “The incentives given are a great motivating factor to perform well and succeed. I want to work hard and put my name on the international map.”
Much like Linda, Babina too aspires to be a police officer. However, at the moment, for both these bright eyed teenagers, football is all they breathe, eat and sleep. The timely platform provided by RFYS has ensured these gifted footballers from Manipur can progress rapidly through the ranks and leave a mark on the national scene.