With a scarf tightly wrapped round her head, 16-year-old Shella stands a few paces away from the goalpost. She yells out encouraging words in her native Dari while simultaneously dodging a referee who keeps asking her to step away from the boundary.
Halfway through the under-17 match between her team, Kabul’s Raba Balkhi High School, and Oriental English School from Lamlong, Manipur, Shella gives up her vantage point and joins her teammates and coach Faiz Mohammad Naziri on the sidelines. “I wasn’t allowed to play this year since they said I am over 17,” she says. “That’s all right, I played last year,” she quips, momentarily turning away to try out her English on a passerby, “Hello, how do you do?”
Shella’s carefree attitude on being barred from playing at the ongoing Subroto Mukerjee Cup Football Tournament is in sharp contrast to her classmate Madina Azizi who is on her first trip to Delhi. “I had a war with my father to get permission to come to India. Back home people are living in the past,” she says, by way of explaining her parents’ reluctance.
India, though it is not unknown to the girls, is a glamorous land that they have come to know through Bollywood movies. “But I finally made it only to be told that my teeth look like that of an 18-year-old!”
Behind her, 11 girls dressed in red jerseys and shorts with full-sleeved shirts and tights underneath so as to not expose any bare skin unsuccessfully run after the ball that is getting passed around quickly by the opponents. As one of them pulls off her printed head scarf and another pushes her sleeves up her arms, it’s Delhi’s muggy weather getting the better of their religious identity.
For these girls -- daughters of cooks, engineers and teachers in Afghanistan -- just seeing the lush grass at the Ambedkar Stadium is a treat. “We practise on concrete floors since we don’t have access to any gardens or fields to play on. Our coach draws out the positions on a blackboard and we all try to follow it,” says Masoumeh Mohammadi, who benefits from having a football-crazy brother, who helps her convince her parents to let her play. She says there are no sponsors available and any equipment is paid for from the families’ savings.
The girls say that the team was put together a month before the tournament so it has been tough facing some of the better Indian teams. “You all have soft hearts,” chided coach Naziri on Thursday, when the nine-goal defeat to the National Cadet Corps (North East Region) left many of the teenagers in tears.
“Things are improving in our country,” observes Mohammad Yousuf, the captain of the boys’ under-14 team from Kabul. “But there should be equal opportunities back home for the girls’ team too. But there is a lot of resistance from their parents since they think there is no future in football,” says Mohammad Yousuf.