As my interviewee enters the pitch and heads to the benches in the corner, the girls pause their training and run towards us to say hi.
“Hi! I’m seeing you for the first time,” asks the interviewee to one of the girls.
“It’s my first day, ma’am. My name’s Chetna,” the girl replies.
“Enjoying the training, Chetna?”
“Yes, ma’am, very much.”
“I’ve always wanted to provide an environment for these girls to be able to play and learn more about football,” says Aditi Chauhan, goalkeeper of the Indian senior national women’s football team, as she sits down for a conversation with SportsKhabri. A smile breaks on her face as she watches the girls rushing back onto the pitch to resume their training.
“Ever since my junior playing days,” Aditi goes on, “I’ve seen firsthand the lack of support provided to female athletes in the country, be it coaching, proper funding for amenities, or professional support provided for issues off the pitch.”
The experience Aditi has gained over the years both as a player and a student has given her ample insight into the lack of support aspiring female footballers are offered in India.
“I still remember the moment when in 2017 my doctor told me I had torn my ACL. I remember crying at the prospect of spending a long time in rehab not knowing what shape I’d be able to return to football in, if at all. There was no professional support provided to the players. No female athlete at this level had made a successful comeback from such an injury for me to draw inspiration from. All I had in my corner was my family and friends and my zeal to make a successful comeback.
“Playing in the UK for Loughborough [University] and West Ham [Ladies, later incorporated by West Ham United], I saw the kind and amount of opportunities women had over there to play at both amateur and professional levels, something that barely exists here in India. I intend to change that. I want to do my part in providing these girls ample opportunities to play football.”
Aditi excelled at multiple sports during her school days. The chance of representing her country at the national level as a football goalkeeper is not something she actively wanted to do, rather it was something that she was directed towards because of her inherent talent.
“I was basically the go-to girl for any and all sports competitions back at school. My father really wanted me to pursue tennis, but I never really got into it,” Aditi admits with a laugh. “I was more attracted to team sports. Initially, basketball was my sport of choice.
“I was in ninth grade when I was properly introduced to football. One of my coaches noted my leadership qualities and hand-eye coordination and suggested I join the football team as a goalkeeper.
“Things really took off from there. Before I knew it, I was off with the national U19 squad as a 16-year-old. Football soon took centre stage in my life and I knew I wanted to go all the way. My parents were apprehensive at first, because football doesn’t exactly guarantee a steady income, especially for female athletes. But when they saw me donning the Indian jersey with my name on the back, they understood what it meant for me.
“I even wanted to pursue sports education in college, but given how few institutions actually gave a degree in that field in India at the time, I never really considered it as an option, until I saw the opportunities that were out there [in other countries]. That took me to the UK, to Loughborough, as I pursued and eventually completed my Master’s in Sports Management.”
Aditi’s search for footballing opportunities brought her to West Ham in 2015, but it would be a while before she actually realised how big a deal that was.
“I was just looking for opportunities to play football and went for trials for the same. I was eventually picked up by West Ham, but I didn’t really know what a big deal it was until I started getting media attention both here in India and back there in the UK. West Ham Ladies were not officially under the aegis of West Ham United Football Club at the time, but the name still carried weight; for an Indian athlete—irrespective of gender—to don the Hammers jersey was indeed a really big deal.
“After the West Ham breakthrough, I thought I was set, that I was going to have a big career overseas. That was until I tore my ACL and reality came crashing down. I left West Ham and returned to India for my rehab.
“In all that time away from the pitch, I kept thinking about what I wanted to do next. That’s when I decided to make She Kicks a reality.”
She Kicks is the initiative undertaken by Aditi via which she wants to provide a safe and prospering space for aspiring young girls to play football.
“We initially partnered with a private limited company to get She Kicks up and running. Earlier this year, in March, we decided to register the programme under a charitable foundation in my name, feeling that we could get more work done that way.
“The aim is simple: I want a space for these young girls, especially the ones who come from underprivileged backgrounds. It’s not that women in India aren’t interested in football; there just isn’t enough of a framework here for them to get ample opportunities.
“I want to foster an environment in which these girls feel comfortable, safe and grow as footballers. I want to provide them with as many opportunities as possible. We’re even planning to set up an ‘elite’ team that would consist of select players from this programme and play professionally.
“I try to be as careful as possible regarding the people I want to work with over this venture. They need to have the right character, personality and motivations for me to be able to bring them onboard.
Expecting challenges is one thing; actually having to face them in reality is another. With She Kicks, Aditi has been finding it out the hard way.
“I never expected this to be easy. I knew I will be facing a lot of challenges, but over the last few years I have been finding out exactly how difficult it is to start and run programmes like these without a proper structure to support them. Take the UK for example, where women’s football gets a lot of support from the men’s side of the game, especially from a financial point of view. Here in India, with the AIFF in the state it’s in, it is much harder. I have set up a fundraiser in hopes of getting as much support as possible, and I hope we manage to inspire others to start contributing to the cause in any way they can.
“Regardless of how much financial support we muster, I intend to stick with the project. I want to help as many girls as I can. If we’re able to get enough support here [New Delhi], we intend to expand the programme to other regions as well.”
The training on the pitch behind us intensifies as the girls prepare for a match later in the evening. Aditi proudly watches them train, fully convinced that her project will come good and make a genuine difference by contributing to the women’s footballing community in India.
“I intend to keep playing,” she starts as we reach the end of our conversation. “As long as I physically can. I am very proud of myself to have been able to make a successful comeback after such a horrifying injury. I’m 29, in my prime years, and want to see how far I can take my game. Maybe I will get another shot at playing football overseas. We’ll see.
“On the national front, I want to make sure I stick around as long as I’m confident that the goalkeepers coming into the squad after me are capable and comfortable enough to go between the posts for India.
“Things are getting better for the female players here in India, even though the growth is slow. The national top-tier of women’s football only goes on for about a month; it’s barely comparable to the year-long campaigns that are played in Europe. Yet, things are better than what they used to be and things will definitely improve, but I only hope they grow faster than they are at the moment.
“I intend to use my platform to spread awareness about the issues in women’s football as much as possible. I have even started working in the media as a presenter and commentator, which I feel will help me reach out to a wider audience and gain more attention.
“But all in all, I don’t intend to plan extensively for the long-term. I have had enough experiences in my life to teach me that long-term plans get scrapped out of nowhere because of things you can’t control. But I know what I want to do, and I will do it to the best of my abilities.”