In India, cricket gets 95% of the sponsorship money. As a result, athletes playing other sports are seen as children of a lesser god. And if these athletes are women, then they are often left asking whether god will ever come to their rescue. No, we are not talking about India’s women wrestlers; instead, we are talking about India’s women footballers.

If you grow up in Kolkata and you are a football buff, chances are that you would have heard about the “Every weekend morning, about 150 children from the Shanti Mullick Coaching Centre start kicking footballs at the Rabindra Sarobar Stadium in south Kolkata after a customary playing of the national anthem.”

So, who is Shanti Mullick? “A legendary footballer, Mullick played against countries like England, Sweden and Thailand, both at home and abroad, scoring many goals as a striker. When she received the Arjuna Award in 1983, among the other recipients of the honour in the same year were sprinter PT Usha and cricketer Diana Edulji…

“In the initial years, we received only one jersey, which you had to wash after every match,” says Mullick, 59, who led the Indian women’s football team during 1981 and 1983. “We were then playing without boots. All those players who were coming to the national championships were barefoot,” she adds. “But it was a joy. We were a happy football family.”

The first female footballer to receive the coveted Arjuna Award, Mullick and her fellow players like Shukla Dutta, Kuntala Ghosh, Dosti Dar, Indrani Shah and Chaitali Chatterjee built the Indian women’s football team in the ’70s and ’80s with few perks and a lot of passion for the sport.”

Interestingly, as in many other sports barring cricket, India’s women have achieved more than the men: “Women’s football in India, which owes its origins to early efforts by the Women’s Football Federation of India in the mid-1970s, won many laurels in the beginning, becoming the second best team in Asia twice, in 1979 and 1983, long before FIFA started a Women’s World Cup.

“It was a lot of hard work then,” says Bembem Devi, 43, who began playing for the country as a 15-year-old. “We used our own equipment and travelled by road and train to venues. We didn’t have a foreign coach,” adds the former Indian captain, who is an Arjuna Award winner and the most-capped Indian female footballer (85 appearances between 1995 and 2016). “We were not thinking about money, we only wanted to play our best for the country.””

The good news is post-retirement star footballers like Bembem Devi are continuing to nurture the next generation of women footballers in India: “After her retirement in 2015, Bembem Devi became coach of the Manipur women’s team in three stints between 2017 and 2022, and later assistant coach of India’s U-17 team in 2018. Currently AIFF’s head of scouting for the national women’s football team, she has inspired a generation of female footballers in the country with her midfield magic and hunger for goals.”

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