Shivashankari comes from a long line of footballers; her grandfather, father and uncle were all heavily involved in the sport, and her older brother and two cousins played football at the State level. This may have a lot to do with the place she grew up in; Austin Town is a place that has produced a ridiculous number of football players for the State and national teams, including Olympians such as T. Shanmugam. Several youngsters train hard at the Nandan Football Grounds and other grounds in the area, while plenty more play the sport in Austin Town’s lanes, whether or not there’s enough room for it.
But there’s one thing about these spaces that cannot fail to strike you: they’re overwhelmingly male. Ask anyone to name female footballers of repute in the area, and you’ll be able to count them using the fingers on one hand. For Shivashankari, however, the lure of the game was just too strong.
“She played not with girls but with boys,” says State coach Joseph Lucas Andrews, who has known her since she was eight or nine, and says with obvious pride that she is one of the best players he’s coached. “She would spend more than two hours training everyday, even if it rained.”
Schoolmates remember her as the girl who dented their self esteem. Robin Anthony, Kendriya Vidyalaya ASC batch of ’98, recalls how during a game of football, the school coach introduced a girl into the fray. She jogged in, showed them all up, and when asked if she was a footballer, replied that she played hockey. (At the time, Shivashankari’s school had no football team for girls.) Robin and his teammates were stunned. Outside school, football was her world. She grew up staring at posters of Baichung Bhutia that she’d coaxed her father into buying, and drew inspiration from her brother and other players in the neighbourhood.
Football for Shivashankari has meant new places visited and friendships forged, but it wasn’t always kind to her or the people around her: her father had to give up the sport and now works as an auto-rickshaw driver. Her brother had to do the same — he works for a car dealership company. Most of her friends and fellow players, have had to quit football in pursuit of a sustainable career.
Moreover, it isn’t just on the field that men are intimidated by Shivashankari — finding love as a female footballer is, by her account, not an easy task. This recently separated mother of a playful two-year-old giggles when she says that telling prospective husbands she was a footballer was enough to have them taking to their heels.
“It has been especially hard, being a woman,” says Shivashankari, who rues the lack of support and infrastructure for female footballers. “In Tamil Nadu, women footballers get jobs in the police force — they ought to do that here,” she says. But despite the odds, and unlike the people around her, Shivashankari has stayed firm. After receiving a BA from Jyoti Nivas College, she got a diploma in professional football coaching from the National Institute of Sports and works as a PE teacher in schools, but the going hasn’t been easy. “‘How can you coach boys?’ is one of the first questions that schools ask me, despite my qualifications,” she says, pointing out that male coaches are rarely asked to display their credentials as footballers.
In an attempt to level the playing field for women, Shivashankari, who coached the State under-16 team in 2006, wants to offer her coaching and expertise to girls at the ground near her home. “I’m ready to work for free, to work on weekends; even the expenses for equipment, such as a few footballs, I can manage,” she says, eager to address what she sees as a real problem. “I want to develop a girls’ football team,” she says, raring to go.
Had things been different for her — with the right kind of support — does she think she could have gone far, been as famous as her idol Baichung Bhutia?
“I didn’t want to be a ‘female Baichung,’” she says with a little smile, “I wanted to be a Shivashankari.”
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