Eight years ago, a PT teacher of the Government Middle School in Muggowal, a village in Hoshiarpur, saw a girl playing barefoot with a bunch of boys and scoring girls for fun.
He took her to an academy, where the young player whose speed and finishing skills stood out was moulded as a player even as the family battled financial pressures to sustain her career and overcome prejudice. On Thursday night, that girl – Manisha Kalyan – became the first Indian footballer to play in a UEFA Champions League match.
The moment came in the 60th minute of the match between Cypriot champions Apollon Ladies, for whom Manisha plays, and Latvian top flight club SFK Riga. The India forward came on as a substitute for Cyprus’ Marilena Georgiou at the Makareio Stadium in Engomi. The 20-year-old’s team won their opening match of the competition 3-0. And even though she wasn’t on the scoresheet, the moment was no less historic.
Before Manisha, Bengaluru FC’s Gurpreet Singh Sandhu was the only Indian to have played a continental match for a European club. In 2016, when he was with Norwegian club Stabaek, Sandhu played in the club’s Europa League qualification match against Connah’s Quay Nomads from Wales.
Manisha’s rise, though, has been remarkable. After she was taken to a football academy by the school PT teacher, Brahmjit, Manisha’s skills kept her footballing ambitions afloat, but the financial strain on her family had started to weigh her down. Manisha’s father, Narendrapal Singh runs a small cosmetic shop in the village and his finances weren’t enough to support her training as well as academics.
Brahmjit never gave up though, and it took him around a month to convince Narendrapal to let her play.
Besides financial issues, the family also had to face unrelenting interference from pesky neighbours and snoopy relatives. “Neighbours and relatives used to taunt my parents. They used to tell him that his daughter plays with boys, she wears shorts. My parents were exposed to such scornful comments from a society that anyone would get mentally scarred. But both my father and mother had a strong belief in coach sir, and they just kept ignoring it,” her Sonam had told The Indian Express in an interview.
In no time, Manisha established herself as one of India’s finest forwards. In fact, she even scored a goal against mighty Brazil during an international friendly last year. After she helped Gokulam Kerala defend their Indian Women’s League title in May, the 20-year-old signed up for Apollon Ladies in a multi-year deal.
On 9 August, Manisha and Sunil Chhetri were named the 2021-22 AIFF Women’s Footballer of the Year, and the 2021-22 Men’s Footballer of the Year, respectively.