From Shillong to RFYS National Champs: The remarkable rise of Umthli Girls
It is a vivid memory for Wandashisha Marwein. It was the first time she was on an airplane. Excited to be on the window seat, Wandashisha remembers being a touch scared at first, but once she looked out, she couldn’t stop staring at the earth below. Wandashisha was headed to Mumbai for the 2017-18 National Finals of the Reliance Foundation Youth Sports (RFYS) with her team, Umthli Secondary School from Shillong. Most girls in the team had never travelled past Guwahati, so to head to “Bollywood City”, as they described it, was a dream come true.
However, the Umthli girls weren’t in Mumbai just to take in the dazzle of the city. They were determined to leave their imprint on the tournament. Having emerged city champions in Shillong and at the zonal level, over the course of the RFYS National Finals, Wandashisha and her teammates simply decimated all competition from different parts of the country. They won each of their eight matches, scoring an astounding 87 goals while conceding only four, on their way to the title. Wandashisha was among the standout performers, showing devastating goal scoring form with her left foot.
So eye-catching was her talent that Wandashisha was shortlisted among four players called to Goa to join the camp for the U-17 Women’s World Cup team after a scouting exercise conducted by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) along with RFYS in 2019. Unfortunately, an injury scuppered her hopes and despite getting another call-up a few months later, Wandashisha couldn’t make the cut as she had only just recovered and not regained form yet. However, for the feisty 17-year-old, the exposure to top level competition and training was experience to savour.
“Winning the RFYS National Championships was the most special experience I have ever had in football,” she says. “Our school only has girls from classes 8 to 10, but at this tournament we were playing against schools who fielded teams that had girls from classes 8 to 12. So, they were bigger but we were able to beat them. It was also very special to be shortlisted for the trials of the U-17 Women’s World Cup squad.”
With a population of just around 1200 (as per the 2011 census), Umthli is a mere dot on the map of Meghalaya. Internet connectivity is patchy and its residents aren’t financially well off. Women from the Khasi tribe though are known for their physical and mental fortitude. Driven by passion and drawing strength from their elders, the girls football team from the village school was determined to overcome the odds. It rains nine months of the year, leaving the ground waterlogged and making training even more challenging. Kits are sparse and quite often local benefactors step in to fund travel and other necessities. Many girls such as Wandashisha, whose mother is a daily wage earner and the sole provider for her and three older brothers, offer support to each other, identifying the strengths and weaknesses of their teammates and working together to improve their skills.
32-year-old Baiatylli Nongkynrih, the sports in-charge at Umthli Secondary School, has played a key role in the impressive progress made by her wards. Baia, as she is fondly called, grew up with five other siblings and remembers being drawn to sport from an early age. She went on to represent Meghalaya at the national level, both in athletics and football, before taking up a job in Shillong as a pharmaceuticals distribution agent. Nearly five years into the job, Baia was told Umthli Secondary school were looking for a sports in-charge. Though she had no formal degree, Baia was well known in the region for her sporting feats, and in any case there were no other applicants for the role in an obscure village. In 2015, Baia started at Umthli.
Drawing on experiences from travels to Bhopal and Pondicherry during her days as a competitive athlete on the national stage, Baia introduced students at the school to an organised regimen. Her initial focus was on the girls, who she found more receptive to taking instructions. Thus began intense daily sessions, twice a day. Gradually, the results started to show and the girls from Umthli swept aside all competition from the state. As the momentum built, a couple of years later, Baia and her girls were on a plane to Mumbai, where they were crowned RFYS National Champions.
“Competing in the RFYS Competition has helped the players with discipline, competitive preparedness mentally and physically, not only at the local level but the national level as well,” she says. “They were ready to face any challenges with every step of the tournament starting from the city leg to the zonals then the Nationals.”
“Unlike other tournaments that they have participated in, this was strictly an institution and age category oriented tournament therefore giving players who were just beginners an opportunity to play at the highest level,” she adds. “Our school did not have enough players to fill the squad and we encouraged the younger ones to join and the experience and exposure they received was immense, from travelling from our village to Shillong for the city and zonal leg then to Mumbai for the nationals was a great experience.”
“The whole experience was like a dream come true for all of them especially with how they travelled by air for the first time and their stay in beautiful accommodation which they have never experienced before,” she continues. “The competition was very tough and helped them understand the competitiveness at this level and how they need to work hard. They have made a lot of new friends even if they didn’t understand the language much, they would communicate just with gestures. The memories of meeting different people will always be treasured.”
For players like Wandashisha, Umthli is where their talent has met opportunity. At six, while kicking a ball about with her brothers, Wandashisha was just having fun. Her village Siejlieh, New Nongstoin in the West Khasi Hills, is 110 Kilometres away from Umthli and it was only when she moved there at 14 after being spotted by Sports Authority of India (SAI) coach Afford Nongrem, that the game became a potential career choice.
Under Baia’s tutelage, Umthli’s reputation was on the rise and within a year Wandashisha was making waves. She now stays at Umthli with a group of girls, who like her have been recruited to study at the school and play football. Away from families, the girls have to cook their own meals and do all the housework, but the common love for football they share makes it a happy existence. An avid fan of Crsitiano Ronaldo’s, Wandashisha laughs when asked about the hardships she’s had to overcome to chase her dreams, saying they have been no different to any of her teammates.
“When we won the RFYS title, the news had spread all over the state and how proud it made us feel to be not only the local champions of the first season in Shillong but the national champions of that year as well,” Baia recalls. “We were felicitated by the Meghalaya Football Association. Being RFYS National Champions has given recognition not only to the school but some individual players as well. It has encouraged a lot of other villages to take the game more seriously.”
“After our win in Mumbai it has drawn a lot of enthusiasm from not only the younger players but other neighboring villages as well,” she adds. “Kids were approaching the school for admission to our sports programme, however the management reminded them that education was equally important.”
On the back of her team’s success on a prominent platform, Baia was also able to attend the RFYS sponsored AIFF’s D-License programme for coaches in 2018. The programme allowed her to upskill her coaching knowledge and she is now targeting a C-license in a few years. Encouraged by strides made by the girls, Baia is now focusing on the school’s sub-junior boys team as well, who also competed at the RFYS tournament last season in Shillong. Baia is keeping her fingers crossed that classes XI & XII are soon added to the school, so her players don’t have to move away just as they are starting to bloom.
“I am very thankful to RFYS for all the encouragement it has given to the institute,” she signs off. “The players and I cannot wait for things to settle on the Covid front and for the tournament to come back.”