Bend it like Umthli girls

Umthli is a picturesque village located around 4km from Laitlyngkot. Last year, it was recognised as a litter-free village under the Swachh Bharat Mission. But cleanliness is not the only characteristic that defines Umthli. There is another factor that makes this village special. Football.
The quaint village nurtures young and talented footballers, all girls, who have already proved their mettle on the field.
Umthli Secondary School has 16 players below the age of 16. The team won the Reliance Foundation Youth Sports in Mumbai last year. The youngest in the group is 14 years old.
Though girls of the village were always keen on dribbling and dodging on the field, it was only in 2015 that the school got its football team that played in the Subroto Cup Tournament. They won their first big match and set the ball rolling for successes.
Monrisha Nongkynrih, the headmistress of the school, says most of the girls are from impoverished families whose source of income is farming. “Despite this the children play for the love of football,” she adds as she points at the rows of trophies and shields kept neatly on iron racks.
“Most of the trophies are won by the football team. But our students are also good at basketball and athletics. They are natural in sports,” she adds as Baiatylli Nongkynrih and Westerning Mylliemngap, the sports teachers, nod in appreciation.
The conversation diverts towards football as the headmistress explains how the players juggle studies and practice.
The government-aided school is hemmed in on three sides by green hills and farmlands which mostly grow potatoes. After school hours when children leave the campus, the only sounds one would hear are those of chirping birds restless to go back to their nests and wind swooshing through the forests around.
Breaking the silence, Baiatylli, who once played football, says there is no permanent coach in the school and a former student, who happens to be her sister, trains the girls. “I too teach them a trick or two,” she laughs.
Seven students from the school have played at the state level and many more are preparing for a bigger platform. Westerning says had there been a state league, local players, especially those from the rural parts of the state, would have got the first step before striding into the national arena.
The sports teachers also talk about the hurdles on the way. The school has little resources to build state-of-the-art infrastructure and puts whatever is available to good use. With hardly any government help, it becomes difficult at times to meet the needs of the teenage players.
The village has two fields. While the bigger field is used by students of all ages for practising football and other sports, the smaller one is used for tournaments. Both the fields are maintained by the Dorbar Shnong. Going by the condition of the grounds, one can say that it is doing a good job.
The Dorbar Shnong also helps the football players with funds and other requirements.
The headmistress informs that the school has players from other districts too. She points at a student who has been summoned along with her friends for an “interview”. The group of eight has been waiting quietly for their turn to come.
Wandashisha Marwein and Aibaplilad Skhemiew are the two ‘outstation students’ in the school. The former is from Nongstoin in West Khasi Hills and had played both the winning matches. She has also got scholarship for her skills in the game.
The talented player is as shy as she is aggressive on the field. She says she chose to study at Umthli because of the football team. Her friend, Aibaplilad, tries to hide behind her friend as she seems wary of facing questions. She is from Mawsynram and is here for the same reason as her friend’s, she says meekly.
Midfielder Aitihun Majaw struggles to find the right words when asked about her experience in the several matches that she has played. Aitihun was chosen for the U-14 national trial in 2015 but could not make it to the final. However, that did not lessen her determination even a bit.
“I met players from other parts of the country during the trial and got to learn many new tricks of the game. The experience has helped me later,” she says with a broad smile, her unkempt hair almost covering her bright eyes.
By now, goalkeeper Jochabeth Riyaki Shabong, a Class X student, has prepared herself to face the volley of questions. So she will appear for board examinations next year? “Yes,” a short reply. And how does she manage? “I play when it is time for the game and study when it is time to do that,” she says, relieved that the question is not a tough one.
Baiatylli says the girls practise for over three hours when there is a tournament.
Talking about lack of infrastructure, the headmistress says since the school has outstation students, it is imperative to have a hostel. “For now, we have rented a house in the village where students from other districts stay. But we are planning to build a hostel so that we can nurture more young talents,” she adds.
MFA push for girls’ league
Though Meghalaya has many talented young footballers among girls, the encouragement from private teams as well as the government is almost non-existent. Shillong United FC is the only club that has a women’s team.
Shillong Lajong, another big name in the game, is yet to have an all-girls’ team. To a query sent through email whether the club is planning to groom girls, Lajong did not reply.
However, Arki Nongrum, the young CEO of Meghalaya Football Association (MFA), shows some glimmer of hope. He says he pushed for the Indian Women’s League in Shillong so that local footballers can watch the players closely and gain confidence. “They should not be scared to face any challenge,” he says.
He also reveals the association’s plan to launch Baby League in April for players between four and 13 years of age. MFA is also planning to launch a girls’ league next year.
“I have plans for providing level playing field to girls and am hoping that I will get enough support to make them a reality,” he says.
Starting with Shillong, Nongrum wants to expand this to other parts of the state.
Recently, MFA organised a football festival for girls on the occasion of International Women’s Day. The association also felicitated members of the Umthli Secondary School team.
Headmistress Nongkynrih, while talking about the team’s recognition, says MFA was the first to appreciate the girls’ feat last year. “I thank MFA for the felicitation. I appreciate its gesture as it was quite encouraging for my girls. None, not even the government department, had come forward to boost the morale of the young players,” she says.
When asked about local clubs’ apathy to groom women footballers, Nongrum says MFA will soon make it mandatory for all clubs to take in girls. “I think till the age of 13, boys and girls can play together.”
Under the government’s Mission Football, several grassroots centres have come up in districts which are identifying local talents, both boys and girls. But the initiative should not end at that and should be taken many steps further so that passionate footballers, especially girls, do not lose the big match before it even begins.
~ NM

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