It’s not only been a distant trek for Sujata and her colleagues from the Indian team to get to Cardiff, but a long road for her to achieve her dream to play football.
Hailing from from a small village outside Darjeeling, in the far corner of India where West Bengal nestles between Bhutan and Nepal, Sujata has been single-minded in her pursuit of the beautiful game.
“Back home I have to walk 30 minutes to get to a road, and to get to somewhere to play football …” Sujata raises her eyes.
“In my area there are many girls who wanted to play football, but inside the homes we cannot convince our families—they don’t allow. I really wanted to play but my family said ‘don’t be like a boy’.
“My mum died when I was 13. She had a kidney infection, but she didn’t tell anyone. She hid it from us because there was no money to help.
“Then life was really different with my dad. It was really hard to convince my dad—he wanted me to be good at my studies, but I loved to play. He used to come to the piece of ground where I would play and shout ‘what are you doing, there is work to do, don’t … don’t … don’t …’ many times.
“So I moved three hours from my home. I had to leave my family—I had to live in a hostel and got work in a bazaar and other jobs. I made a friend there who played football and one day she said, come along. It was a great opportunity—football is my life.”
Sujata tried to pick up any more jobs she could to earn money for her education and to play football.
“I think football shapes us—especially girls—in many ways. I am a player, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do bad things. For society, I would like to bring the changes that football brings.”
Through living in a hostel and her love of the game, Sujata was put into contact with Slum Soccer, the organisation in India that uses football as a vehicle that transcends race, religion, language, and gender to bring about a change. She was asked to trial for the team and duly secured her place for Cardiff alongside girls from all over her country.
“We came together as strangers but now we are a family,” she says. “It is really sad because after this we will have to go our own ways. We will have to go back to our own areas and to go from my home to Mumbai takes two days and two nights by train.”
Although the players can only represent their country once at the tournament, Sujata is determined to keep in touch with as many of the other girls as possible, whatever the obstacles, and has big plans for her future and for others in her situation.
“There is a big problem in our country because many of our older people are illiterate and don’t think about equality. They say don’t wear shorts, don’t go outside, don’t play with boys. Many restrictions. I’m going to help them to understand.
“I want to change my life, do my football licence, and be a football coach.
“I feel life is changing for women in India and especially through football. Some women who have been here before have gone on to be referees, or to coach. I feel this is time to change, whatever the struggle might be.
“It’s okay to struggle to be a good person.”
Words: Isobel Irvine
Images: Mile 44