A tale of two footballers and their fight against gender bias

CHENNAI: Sonali Soren is certainly not a showstopper, who will force people to take a break and wait eagerly to follow her next movement. She is a simple young girl with a sweet and innocent smile – never too eager to start a conversation unless required.

Yet, there is something about this girl, who hails from the Purba Bardhaman district in West Bengal, that makes her different from most others of her age. Behind her shy look and timid approach, there is a kind of glistening determination in her eyes that clearly marks her as a very special person unmistakably dissimilar to an average girl of her age.

Sonali wasn’t born with a silver spoon; her journey in life had never been a smooth one. Having been born in a tribal family, that always struggled to put enough food on the table, Sonali was not expected to progress much in life. Yet, the teenaged midfielder, today, is in the National camp in Chennai for the India U-20 Women’s Team which is currently preparing for the upcoming SAFF U-20 Women’s Championship to be held in Dhaka, Bangladesh from February 3-9, 2023.

Soren has a fascinating tale to tell. She started playing football at the age of eight and instantly became a victim of ridicule and taunt as a girl was not supposed to play football in the society she had been brought up in. But nothing could deter her from achieving her goal; she was the first woman footballer from her tribe in the district to make it to the India Under-17 National Women’s Team camp back in 2019.

“When I started playing football, people used to talk a lot behind my back. But I was determined and never gave them undue importance. I knew I had to work hard to achieve my target and continued making all efforts to play and improve as a footballer.

“Well, it wasn’t easy. My father is a daily wager and my mother is a teacher. They had to go the distance day in day out so that I could reach where I am today. I will have to play good football for two reasons. First, I want to make my parents proud of me. And most importantly, I want to reach a level, which will break the taboo and encourage girls from my tribe to take up football,” said Sonali.

“Being in the camp gives me a lot of happiness. The food, the training, everything is so new and fresh to me. Also, we are getting trained under two top class coaches. It gives me the extra boost to perform better in each training session,” Sonali said.

While Sonali had her ways to deal with life’s difficulties, forward Tania Kanti’s journey to the National camp wasn’t easy either. She lives in the Cooch Behar district of West Bengal, and started playing when she was nine-year-old. She was the only girl in her village to train and practice with the boys and naturally became the target of all those people with age-old gender bias, who still believe football is not meant to be played by girls.

“I started playing with the boys and did not have any knowledge of football, but gradually started enjoying it. When the U-17 trials happened, I never thought I would get selected but it was stopped because of Covid-19, and my dream was shattered. But I never stopped training. I even used to train at my home because I knew one day my hard work will produce results. And now after two long years, I got the opportunity to prove myself. I will not leave any room for mistakes and will work hard to make a mark and win the tournament.”

In the midst of all these, the U-20 girls are also having the experience of being with the Senior Women’s National Team. They watch their seniors train at the same ground and get an opportunity to mingle with them at the dinner table or while coming back from the training session.

“It’s amazing to watch our seniors train – their dribbling skills, passing abilities and speed are something I want to learn and emulate. I really enjoy the atmosphere here in the camp. Football has given me the confidence to face people. I thank everyone – the people who organise this camp, my coaches, friends, and staff who support us every day so that we can live the life we want to,” Tania said.

Also Read: A tale of two footballers and their fight against gender bias

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