A group of teenage footballers from a village on the outskirts of Ranchi in Jharkhand have achieved something which even sportsperson with the best facilities and support in cities would only dream of.

Eighteen tribal girls representing Yuwa India under-14 all-girls team were placed third among 10 all-girls teams from Spain playing for the Gasteiz Cup in Victoria Gasteiz in Spain on July 13. The girls - students in village schools in Ormanjhi 20 km from Ranchi who played outside their village for the first time - were placed third after two wins, two losses, and one draw against international teams. Earlier the same month, during the Donosti Cup, Spain’s biggest football tournament, the girls made it out of the group phase defeating two teams from Spain before they lost to Santa Teresa (Spain) and Wisconsin International (USA) placed 2nd and 3rd respectively.

Over the last few days, the image of the joyous footballers wearing red and white sarees over their and flowers in their hair and around their wrists lifting their prize at Gasteiz Cup tournament has been shared again and again on social media sites. The team’s guru the founder and Executive Director of Yuwa-India, Franz Gastler, a 30-year old American who had first come to Jharkhand four years back to teach in villages, shared the story of the team’s journey from Ranchi to Spain.

Excerpts from an email interview:

What was the biggest challenge you and the team faced to reach the tournaments in Spain?

Obtaining the documents to allow the girls to travel. After we were invited by Donosti Cup with the support of TZBZ a group of student entrepreneurs in the Basque country of Spain, the main challenge, funny enough, was obtaining birth certificates. Most girls did not have official birth certificates (as they were born at home).

Yuwa doesn't have the staff to get these for eighteen girls, so the girls and their parents took the task on. At first, mothers and fathers accompanied the girls to the local Panchayat office. But as the weeks dragged on into months, the parents could not leave their fields and day labour jobs to follow up time and again. The girls reported to us that Dinesh Sahu, the panchayat sewak, had slapped several of them in the face when they arrived to follow up on the work. He made many of them sweep his office floor, and demanded bribes from each and every one of them. He told them that if they went to Spain, I would sell them into slavery.

How did the girls’ families respond to the girls’ participating in the tournament?

It was also a challenge getting support from the parents. While all of the parents wanted their daughters to get this opportunity, most could not fathom what a massive opportunity this really was. Most had never been outside of Jharkhand, and going abroad was hard to imagine.

We run classes and practices in three villages, and girls come from 10 villages to attend the program. My staff and I spent days tracking down parents in far-flung villages to sign documents -- although they had been told to meet us and sign documents at a certain time / date, they would sometimes leave for weddings etc. far away, and with no means to contact them.

The girls were often left to fend for themselves, against all the entrenched forces working against them in society, family and government. Nothing that's intended for them reaches them as it should. They have to fight for everything.

But that's one reason I admire these girls so much. They take on the challenges in their lives with courage, devotion and team spirit. Their grit and hunger to improve their lives and the lives of those around them often leaves me in awe.

What support have you got from the state and central government so far? What support could the sports and government authorities offer to the team in terms of funds, facilities, land etc.?

We've gotten no support from the state government as of yet. We have applied for land on a long-term lease because the land we play on is disappearing from right under our feet as land prospectors come in and buy up the land and put brick walls around it. Right now our proposal is sitting with the Sports Secretary, and she has said that without the support of the Jharkhand cabinet ministers, nothing will happen.

I don't know what has become of Dinesh Sahu, the panchayat sewak. The last I heard he was still in the same office, but had been told me might be transferred somewhere else. The media was very helpful, and the Inspector General CID Jharkhand Anurag Gupta was very helpful when we brought this to his attention. He said we can file a report, which we did. I don't know if any meaningful disciplinary action has happened, however.

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