In spite of not being one of the traditional hotbeds of Indian football, Jharkhand has been slowly and steadily building a football culture. The Jharkhand Football Association (JFA) is ticking all the right boxes to spread the sport in every nook and corner of the state.
They have been aggressively promoting women's football for the past four-five years. And in 2019 they even reaped rewards in the Sub-Junior and Junior Girls National Football Championship bagging gold and silver respectively in the two competitions. The national selectors have also taken cognizance of their hard work and have summoned eight girls to the India U17 women's camp that is set to start from July 20 in Goa.
Under the stewardship of JFA secretary Ghulam Rabbani, the state association has been undertaking ambitious scouting programmes in 10-12 districts of Jharkhand. Suryaman Pradhan and Asish Bose lead these scouting missions. Apart from scouring the urban centres like Bokaro, Ranchi, Jamshedpur, the two men also travel to tribal-dominated areas like Gulma, Ramgarh, and Koderma to spot the hidden gems.
"Gulma is a very productive district. The girls from Gulma are the brightest. We go to around 11-12 districts and try to bring out the best talents from there. At first, we don't tell them anything. We just watch them play. If we like someone we approach their parents so that they can be trained further," narrated Pradhan to Goal.
Most of these girls hail from tribal areas and financially weak backgrounds, where education, diet and training are still a distant dream. The selected girls are often admitted to a residential missionary school where they are nourished, educated and trained to take the next step in football.
"The girls train for almost two years in these schools. The school coaches work on their basics and after that, they are sent to various football academies that are there in the state. The best ones are given a chance in SAI (Sports Authority of India) Ranchi complex. But all of them cannot be placed and this is a cause of concern. So many of them stay back at home. When they are at home they work in the fields and even involve themselves in ploughing and cattle grazing. Although they train twice a day, one must admit that the development is hindered. But we remain in constant touch with all players and check on their progress," said Pradhan, who is himself a D-license holder.
The rigours of agriculture have made them physically strong while being exposed to poverty and hardships have fortified them mentally. Football for these girls is an easy way to change their lives for the better and to ensure that their families are fed two square meals a day.
"One of the girls came to us and at that time she had never participated in a competition But after watching her play, I immediately told the headmaster and Rabbani Sir to apply for her passport. She is now with the India U17 team. So, you see that football is being perceived as a game-changer in their lives. More importantly, they are obedient and will practice for hours without even complaining. 30 round ground ke marne ko bolenge toh bhi maaregi. (Will run for 30 rounds around the ground without complaining). Bhookh hai seekhne ka (They are hungry to learn)."
Bose, who is a shadow partner of Pradhan, feels that the girls could be more benefitted if they could hold the state camp for a few more months rather than the customary one month camp before the national championship.
"If we had got some sponsors then we would have conducted the camp for three-four months. Now it is done for 25 days. Sometimes we get only 15 days."
But the issue can be resolved in the near future as Jharkhand has been granted a 'special-state' status by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) after the phenomenal success of the U14 and U17 district tournaments. These tournaments also allow the coaches to provide the girls with compeitive matches which they deem paramount to their development.
"The AIFF has come forward to help us. The 'Special State' status should be a major boost to our ambitions. We are striving to push the girls of our state to a better future. We hope that a national level training camp will be held in Jharkhand in the coming months," informed Rabbani, who is also in touch with the Jharkhand government to ensure that a certain per cent of the jobs is reserved for the girls who bring glory to the state by playing football.
Jharkhand scored 24 goals in two matches of the group stage of the sub-junior championship. Nitu Linda, a cadet groomed by Pradhan and Bose, struck 13 times in the tournament. But the duo is not willing to rest on their laurels. At 57, Pradhan feels that his journey has just started and he is ready to scale any heights to help the girls of his state have a brighter future.
"Trophy ke peeche nehi bhaagte hai hum. Ladikyo ko India k liye kaabil banana hai. (I don't run after trophies. But the girls should be capable of representing India)," asserts Pradhan whose personal journey as a player stopped leagues before donning the famed blue jersey of the national team.