The perception of people about the fairer sex playing the beautiful game was not always equitable. Many female players have had to leave the sport in the prime of their lives, just because society had planned other things for them.
Former India U-19 international Pooja Joon Narwal is one amongst them.
Having started playing football at an early age, Pooja soon rose through the ranks in Haryana, even going on to play District level tournaments when she was still in school. After performing creditably at the School Nationals, Pooja created history by being selected for the India U-19 side that played the AFC U-19 Women’s Championship in Goa in 1999.
By being selected, she became the first woman from Haryana to be selected in any National Team across all age-groups in football. Now the Assistant Coach of the Alakhpura FC side in the Indian Women’s League 2018-19 season, Pooja has gone on to carve her career in football despite facing many obstacles.
FOOTBALL VS STUDIES
But while Pooja went on to play football at the National and the University levels, her career in International football, however, was short-lived’ and it was not for lack of talent.
“I had got National Team call-ups a couple of times, but sadly I couldn’t turn up. The timing of those camps always clashed with my college exams, and my parents advised me to secure my future through studies, rather than go into football.”
“My parents had a simple point of view – ‘So you’ll play a few matches for India. What after that? All this hard work, and no fruit at the end?” she exclaimed. “Perhaps if I had got better guidance back then, I would have been able to continue both my playing career, and my studies.”
“I felt really sad, leaving the sport in my early twenties, but I had to swallow the bitter pill and carry on with my life.”
FOOTBALL FOR WOMEN
While she herself had a hard time continuing her football career, Pooja believes that “the situation is much positive for the female players in the modern day”.
With the Indian Women’s League going on, and innumerable International camps and tournaments being played by the National Teams, girls have way more opportunities to make a life out of the beautiful game.
“We are at an exciting stage right now. Next year we will have the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, and that will surely help bring a lot of awareness about women’s football in the country,” she said.
“Also, thanks to the internet, parents and girls these days are much more aware of alternate opportunities, so if a career in sports does not work out, the girls still have a future where they can make a good living,” continued Pooja.
“I remember her. She was one of the strikers in our team back then. She was young, we are good friends. Now I’m really happy to see her become a coach. I’d like to see more such former national team players take up coaching roles,” recollects current India National Team Head Coach Maymol Rocky, who was the Haryana girl’s teammate at that time.
While no other woman had played in any National Team in football before her, Pooja’s selection in the India U-18 squad sent ripples across women’s football in Haryana.
“I remember, people started talking about this back home. They suddenly realised that women can also become National Team players if they work hard enough,” said Pooja.
“Before there were only five teams in the Women’s District tournaments. But then more and more teams started to sign up, and we started having a larger pool of players for the state side too,” she continued.
The Alakhpura FC assistant coach, who also works at the Haryana Government Sports Department went on to state that even the teachers who used to go to the grounds to watch her play, would go to the other parents and explain to them how a girl can make the nation proud.