A tale of two Manipur girls: From the worst of times to the best of times

Ten-year-old Arina had her eyes filled with tears when her father said he was not in favour of her playing football.
A tale of two Manipur girls: From the worst of times to the best of times

Dhaka: Ten-year-old Arina had her eyes filled with tears when her father said he was not in favour of her playing football. Arina's father, a mason labourer in Manipur, remained a boxing fan throughout and wanted his daughter to pursue a career as a pugilist.

Arina didn't cry for long. She wiped her eyes, stilled her nerves and then told her father in no uncertain terms that she would rather become a footballer than a boxer.

And the story began to unfold thereafter.

Today, Arina Devi Nameirakpam, a midfielder, has travelled to an extent where she has become one of the privileged 23 for the India U19 Women's Team and is currently in Dhaka for the SAFF U19 championship, waiting to be baptised in the hardcore battle of international football.

"At the age of 10, my brothers would play football in front of our house, and they would call me the ball girl. Watching them play ignited a love for the game in me. As I began learning the intricacies of football, I started playing regularly," Arina said.

Arina stops for a moment and gets lost in her thoughts. She then puts away her empty plate on the breakfast table and begins to narrate her story again.

"Despite my passion, my father never supported my football aspirations; he always wanted me to be a boxer. Despite his disapproval, I continued to pursue football. Although he never expressed his thoughts, he would drop me off at coaching classes without uttering a word.

"Many people, including some close to us, would come to our house to tell my father that football is not for girls. They even have an issue with my short hair. However, my selection for the Indian team silenced many critics. My father is now satisfied, but I've assured him that I'll play and make him proud so that he doesn't have to heed others' opinions anymore," the midfielder, who draws inspiration from Bala Devi, said.

No less fascinating is the story of goalkeeper Anika Devi Sharubam, another youngster from a small village in Manipur in the India U-19 team here in Dhaka.

Born to a weaver mother and a father who worked as a labourer, Anika realized early on that she needed to make a significant contribution to provide a better life for her family.

She became a football player. Yet, one notable hurdle for her in the world of football was the language barrier. Not being fluent in Hindi or English, Anika felt this could be a limitation. However, her passion for football and admiration for goalkeeper Linthoingambi inspired her to keep growing in the game without letting language barriers hold her back.

"When I initially began playing football in school, it was simply a hobby for me. I never anticipated that my love for the game would lead to a call-up to represent the national team. The prospect of making my debut on the international stage makes me a bit nervous, as it's my first time showcasing my skills at this level," Anika said.

"I face some challenges with expressing myself in other languages, but I'm working on overcoming this barrier by learning other languages. On the pitch, it's all about your performance. Fortunately, my coaches and friends have been incredibly supportive, never discouraging me due to my linguistic limitations.

"I draw inspiration from Linthoi, the goalkeeper of the senior national team. Whenever I have the opportunity to meet her, I strive to learn new techniques and insights. My ultimate aspiration is to play at the senior level someday, and that's why I'm committed to giving my absolute best in the SAFF U19 tournament," Anika, a music lover, said. (IANS)

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Sentinel Assam