ASTAM ORAON grew up in a village in Jharkhand that’s so remote that she was, as a child, virtually cut off from the rest of the world. There was no phone connectivity and irregular electricity. Her parents work in the fields for most of the year and in the months when they did not, they’d find jobs as daily wagers elsewhere to make ends meet.
Like Astam, Sudha Ankita Tirkey’s parents, too, work in the fields as labourers. When her parents couldn’t find work during the Covid lockdown in 2020, food was scarce in their household. But Sudha’s parents never asked her to stop playing football.
Come October 11, Astam and Sudha will be two of the six girls from Jharkhand who are a part of the India team that takes on the USA in the first match of the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar. Apart from Astam and Sudha, the other players from Jharkhand in the team are Anjali Munda, Purnima Kumari, Nitu Linda and Anita Kumari.
The tournament’s seventh edition will be played in three cities — Bhubaneswar, Goa and Navi Mumbai, which will host the final on October 30. The 16 teams, which include defending champions Spain and Brazil, are divided into four groups of four teams each, with the winner and runner-up in each group progressing to the quarter-finals.
For India, which qualified as hosts and are playing for the first time in a FIFA event, making it to the group stage will not be easy, given that they will be up against the US, Morocco and tournament favourites Brazil.
Coach Thomas Dennerby, however, will rely on his players’ abilities to overcome the odds. While there are no players in the squad from the three host cities, the five Jharkhand girls are expected to be in the playing XI.
Astam, who plays left-back, is likely to be captain. Realising the lack of opportunities in Gumla, her parents sent her to Saint Colombus Collegiate in Hazaribagh, about a four-hour drive away, so that she would get a chance to play football.
“Initially, she played as a left midfielder. While she was good on the ball, she wasn’t able to track back to defend, something that’s imperative for midfielders,” S Pradhan, who’s the coach of the Jharkhand team, told The Indian Express.
The U-17 nationals at Kolhapur in 2019 were where she was able to show her capabilities following which she was selected for the India camp. “She has worked tremendously on her game. Though she went into the camp as a midfielder, the coach must’ve seen she’s suited for defence,” Pradhan said.
Astam’s partner in defence, Purnima Kumar, whose parents are farmers, has meanwhile developed a reputation of being a robust and fearless player.
One of the brightest prospects from Jharkhand is midfielder Nitu Linda, who trained at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre in Ranchi. Though she’s one of the shortest players in the team, her skills and technical knowledge mean that she’s often the first on the team sheet.
Linda had a rough childhood, with her mother passing away while she was young. Her father, a farm worker, struggled to make ends meet but always encouraged her to play. “She’s going to make heads turn. I wouldn’t be surprised if big clubs come calling for her after this tournament,” coach Pradhan said.
Like Linda, goalkeeper Anjali Munda, too, trained at the SAI centre. She wasn’t always a goalkeeper though. She preferred playing as a defender. It was on Pradhan’s advice that she took up goalkeeping. “She’s always the tallest player on the pitch. She said she only wanted to be a defender. I managed to convince her that she’ll have more opportunities as a goalkeeper because I haven’t seen that many tall girls in Indian football,” Pradhan said.
Anjali’s teammate, Anita Kumar, paid no heed to the taunts she and her family got from the villagers “for wearing shorts”, knowing that football could be her way out. Initially a right back, she now plays as a striker and has done phenomenally for India in the preparatory tournaments.
She isn’t the only one who has stepped out of her comfort zone. Almost every player in the team has a story to tell — led by Astam, the player who was once cut off from the world but is now likely to lead her country at the U-17 World Cup.