Saturday , January 28 2023

Of cold weather & league titles: The story of Dangmei Grace’s success in Uzbekistan!

Winning a league title is a special occasion for any footballer, but winning two in the space of six months is almost unheard of. Dangmei Grace is one such suspect who has clinched gold medals in both the Indian Women’s League in May, and the Uzbekistan Women’s League in November 2022.

The Indian Women’s Team winger had, after her IWL victory with Gokulam Kerala, moved to PFC Sevinch Karshi in Uzbekistan, who completed their league campaign finishing on top, on Friday, November 25, 2022.

“We had a long and hard league campaign, and it was very satisfying to come away with the win at the end. When you work towards something for months on end, and finally get the results, it is really satisfying,” Grace said.

“It was quite different when I had first come here. The season had already started, and I had to take some time to get used to the playing style here, which is much more physical than what we have in India,” she said. “It took me a couple if weeks to get up to speed with the rest of my teammates and then I started getting chances to play.”

While the transfer to Sevinch represents a positive move for Grace, who got an opportunity to play in a longer league season, shifting base to a new city in an unknown country could be a difficult proposition for anyone. Like any normal person, it took Grace some time to adjust to Qarshi, a city that steeped in history of great conquerors of the past and of the famous silk route.

“It was a struggle at first, when I had moved to Qarshi. I did not know anybody here, and took some time to adjust the everyday life. At first, I took up a residence with some teammates, but I found it difficult to do certain daily chores along with training thrice a day. Ultimately I decided it would be better to stay in the club’s facilities, where everything is mostly taken care of, and I just need to concentrate on my football,” she said.

Imphal, where Grace grew up, may be a relatively colder place in the winters, but the autumn-winter season in the Central Asian steppe can begin to get severe for someone who is not used to it.

“I had previously played in Uzbekistan against their national team, but not during this season. It was getting really cold, and my one-stop remedy for most of the things was to drink hot water,” laughed Grace. “I never really went out much, except for training or going for matches. It would mostly be pretty mundane days – early morning gym, breakfast, rest, lunch, evening training, dinner sleep. And lots of hot water between each step.”

While she was still getting used to life in Qarshi, getting used to the pace of the game in Uzbekistan was a completely different proposition for Grace.

“The first few weeks were terrible. I could barely think on the pitch. I would come back home and then think about the game and where I needed to improve,” said Grace. “It was both physically and mentally demanding. The opponents were always on you every second of the game, and every match your body takes quite a battering that you are probably not used to.

“But these are moments when you really learn that your body is capable of taking so much more, of doing so much more. My only thought was that the club has put a lot of trust in me to bring me in mid-season. Now, it is up to me to repay that trust and improve my game.”

The 26-year-old notes that the way football is played in Uzbekistan is also quite different from that in India.

“One needs to be patient when one is not in possession. You just can’t go and commit, or you’ll be completely out of position, and your team will suffer,” she surmised. “We are also told not to play long balls when not needed. We need to keep it on the ground and try and work it around. For me on the wing, I need to get into good crossing positions, but I can’t hold the ball for too long. It’s mostly just one or two touches.”

Women’s football in Uzbekistan does draw it’s fair share of fans to the stands, and the fans from the city of Qarshi, which loosely translates to ‘fort’ in medieval Turko-Mongolic, do help their own club during their home matches.

“We get quite a few fans during our home matches, and they are quite boisterous. They give us a lot of confidence with their cheering and their drums,” said Grace. “The fans in Uzbekistan are quite passionate, which is a blessing in disguise for me. When we play away from home, we do get a lot of jeers and abuses from the opposing fans, but I don’t really know the language, so it does not affect me as much.”

Having completed the league season, the Manipuri winger is now set to come back home to represent her home state in the National Championship. She believes that the pathways for women footballers in India have begun to open up, and it should not be long before more like herself go out and make a name for themselves and the Tricolour.“There’s so many of us playing in foreign leagues now. Manisha (Kalyan) is playing in Cyprus (Appollon Ladies), Soumya (Guguloth) and Jyoti (Chouhan) are in Croatia (Dinamo Zagreb). That really shows that our Indian players can do well in other countries too. I hope more such Indian women keep performing well and keep getting opportunities abroad,” said Grace.

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