When Manisha Kalyan took the flight to Brazil to participate in the four-nation tournament earlier this week, she was overwhelmed.
“She was a bit nervous about playing against the likes of Brazil and Chile in the tournament,” says Brahmjit Singh, Manisha’s childhood coach, who got a call from his ward from the airport lounge.
But the youngster, who will turn 20 on Saturday, had enough composure to slot home India’s first ever goal against Brazil in senior football. It was history for the teenager, even if India lost the match 1-6 against the 2007 World Cup runners-up.
When her team needed her, she stayed calm, but her journey from Mugowal village in Punjab’s Hoshiarpur district to the four-nation event in Manaus, via Gokulam Kerala, has had enough turbulence to make her feel anxious about the opportunity that came her way.
🤩 That special goal 🤩
— Indian Football Team (@IndianFootball) November 26, 2021
Eight years ago, Brahmjit, a PT teacher in the Government Middle School in Mugowal, saw a girl playing bare feet with boys and scoring goals for fun.
“I couldn’t believe what I saw that day. She was beating boys of her age group with her incredible pace. All that was required was a bit of polishing. I took her to Mahilpur Football Academy, and she immediately impressed all the coaches there,” he tells The Indian Express.
The skills kept her footballing ambitions afloat, but the financial strain on her family had started to weigh her down. Manisha’s father, Narendrapal Singh runs a small cosmetic shop in the village and his finances weren’t enough to support Manisha’s training as well as academics.
“Our financial condition was not good. Our father was the sole breadwinner. He just wanted us to focus on our studies, nothing else,” recollects Sonam, the eldest among the four Kalyan sisters.
“My father thought it was useless to spend Rs 1,000 and 1,500 on sports shoes. I don’t blame him who would have thought back then that she will play for India,” says Sonam.
Brahmjit never gave up though, and it took him around a month to convince Narendrapal.
“That was the hardest part. I kept telling him that this girl is so talented. She was scoring goals against U-14 boys for fun.
“I asked him what was stopping him from letting his daughter play football. He said he can’t afford to buy her sports shoes. I told him not to worry as money will never become a hurdle in Manisha’s career, and finally, I had his permission,” recalls Singh.
Besides financial issues, the family also had to face unrelenting interference from pesky neighbours and snoopy relatives.
“Neighbours and relatives used to taunt my parents. They used to tell him that his daughter plays with boys, she wears shorts. My parents were exposed to such scornful comments from society that anyone would get mentally scarred. But both my father and mother had a strong belief in coach sir, and they just kept ignoring it,” says Sonam.
“It’s still hard to fathom that they said such mean things only because my father let his daughter play,” she adds.
And then came the historic goal against the mighty Brazilians.
Proudly watching the replays of Manisha’s goal, Narendrapal says,” Everything is in the past. I just want her to keep scoring goals for India.”
Manisha made her senior team debut against Hong Kong in January 2019, but the turning point in her career came when she was named in the Indian U-17 team that participated in the BRICS Football Cup in South Africa in 2018.
In the 2019-20 season, she played a key role in Gokulam Kerala winning the Indian Women’s League (IWL) title. She was named the emerging player of the tournament.
Manisha has dribbled past prejudice and financial difficulties to reach her goal of playing for the national football team, her dream is to represent her country in the World Cup one day.
It is going to be a long road for Manisha to achieve that dream. But the youngster knows the importance of patience and perseverance, and that she is just off the blocks.