Friday, March 7, 2014

Bend it like a (Bihari) Beckham

Our poverty is demonstrated in many visible ways. One invisible way is this: we need inspired foreigners to inspire us. Why are these girls not being supported by society? At any rate it is nice that they have something to look forward to.

Franz Gastler shot into the limelight last year when his team of under-14 girls from rural Jharkhand came third at the Gasteiz Cup in Spain.

Q. Congratulations again on coming third at Gasteiz, but why is it that you decided on taking a team from here all the way there?
A. We met a few Spanish students from the University of Mondragon at Dharavi, where we were running a football camp for slum girls. They asked us whether we had a more regular team — we said yes, back in Jharkhand — and whether we would like to come to a tournament in Spain? They also helped arrange the funding to get us there.

Q. You’ve talked about the difficulties involved in getting there. That the local panchayat sewak slapped the girls and got them to sweep his office when they went to ask him for birth certificates (the certificates were needed to prove they weren’t overage)... has that third-place finish made things easier for these girls?
A. It’s made some things easier, and it’s made some things more difficult. We’ve lost the football field we used to practise on — probably due to jealousy. The person who owned the field dug it up, and then left it like that, so we couldn’t use it. But I kind of believe in what Gandhi said: “First they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win.”

Q. You’ve talked earlier of how these girls have to fight for everything. That nothing that is meant for them ever reaches them. Are things still the same?
A. The girls have got better at fighting. They don’t put up with the patriarchy that that they might have earlier. Just this time, coming to a football camp in Delhi, there was a man on the train who got funny with one of the girls. He put his hand in her front pocket. Women often tend to keep quiet about things like that, but not her. She pulled his hand away, then pushed him off, and called the police.

Q. Can football be expected to do something for these girls lives? Change them in some way?
A. To some extent, it already has. What we’re hoping for these girls is that their lives will take one of three tracks. Either they will go on to government jobs; or they will go on to University which should then lead to better lives than just looking after the home. (I read recently, in the Times of India, that people who speak English earn 34% more than their non-English-speaking counterparts. We’re teaching our girls English, so that should help too.)

And thirdly, I believe some of these girls could go on to become elite athletes and get into some of the top universities in the US. I believe they have that talent. A few of our girls qualified for a national coaching camp, but they were miserable there. It was the same thing again. Abusive coaches mistreating the girls in their care. So we don’t send our girls to national coaching camps any longer. I also mentioned that to Sara Pilot — she’s heading the committee on the development of women’s football in India — when I was called to advise them about the women’s game. They were talking about the usual things — sponsorships, marketing — and I asked them why we can’t have a few good coaches? Non-abusive ones? They weren’t very happy about that.

Q. You yourself aren’t a football player. You played ice hockey. Are you a good coach? I imagine people would be sceptical of a football coach who hasn’t played the game himself...
A. The girls don’t have much choice. In some ways, we’re the exact opposite of football in the US. There they have lots of space, lots of equipment and very few people. We have very little space, very little equipment, and lots of people. So we do depend a lot on peer-to-peer coaching, where a 16-year-old will teach a 13-year-old, who will then teach a 9-year-old. The same thing happens in the favelas of Brazil. I did however attend a coaching camp in the US last year.

Q. Now what? Are you going back to Gasteiz this year?
A. Actually, we’re going back to my hometown. Minneapolis. To the USA cup, the largest youth football tournament in the western hemisphere. (The 2014 edition will have over 950 teams and 14,000 players from 16 different countries taking part.)

Q. You arrived in Jharkhand as a 26-year-old. You wanted to teach in the villages. Exactly what were you thinking?
A. I’d met Sam Pitroda in Chicago, who fixed up a job for me with the Confederation of Indian Industries in Delhi. I was 25 then. I did that for a year and then I had this romantic idea that I wanted to go see the villages. So I got a job with an NGO in Jharkhand, but they seemed to do everything out of the office. Nobody ever went out into the field. So I left and started Yuwa, doing the one thing a student understands — teaching English. Then, one of the girls asked if I could teach her to play football, and that’s how it all started.

Q. What happens when you leave?
A. I don’t intend to.


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