The Most Important Indian Sporting Event You Don’t Know About
As sportswomen stay in the spotlight after the Women’s World Cup, a homegrown initiative is showing the way to a better life through sport for young girls across the country.
For four years now, the finals—held after village, district and state play-offs—are organised every January. The participants, from nine states, are 180,000 underprivileged girls, aged 6-15. Compare this with the 10,500 athletes due to participate in the 2024 Paris Olympics.
The Toofaan Games, organised by the Naandi Foundation, and an offshoot of popular education initiative Project Nanhi Kali, could easily be in the reckoning for an award for the best thing that’s happening in Indian sport today, even though there are no sports officials involved in this story—or perhaps because there are none. This sporting event is conducted and managed by rural women.
It’s also a rapidly evolving story of local leadership. And football. It provides a conclusive answer to a question being debated in global sports: why women coaches matter.
When Rohini Mukherjee, vice president at Naandi Foundation, met Lisa Murawsky in 2018, the latter introduced her to the life changing power of sport for young girls and women. Have you ever thought of adding a sports component to the work you do? This simple question by the sports veteran from Brussels who happened to be in India changed everything. Murawsky joined Naandi Foundation as sports director and they began brainstorming a blueprint for their ‘Sports for Life’ programme.
They had to keep in mind that their young participants—first-generation learners enrolled in the Nanhi Kali programme and supervised by 6,500 tutors across villages—couldn’t afford sports shoes and didn’t have easy access to bathrooms, thus making them very cautious water drinkers. Another question that came up later was that of adequate nutrition to have the energy to play sport. The programme had to be simple and easily executable by their tutors, later renamed sports allies, across India.
Toofan Game began in 2019, with just four events and four age groups. The groups are named after sportswomen Swapna Barman, Hima Das, Mirabai Chanu and PV Sindhu. These names also served to introduce girls who had never played or even watched sport to global champions such as heptathlete Barman who had six toes on each foot and couldn’t afford custom-made shoes. The events test speed (50m sprint); endurance (5 minute run); agility (running sideways) and lower body strength (long jump).
“It was my first day on the field, thinking ‘let’s try out this sports thing, let’s see what happens’. I thought my job would be the technical aspects plus to convince women that sports is important,” recalls Murawsky. “But these women who tutored the girls were coming up to me and saying, ‘Where have you been? Don’t you know that sports is important for self-esteem and gives girls confidence?’.”
The games were a hit, of course, but the tutors or sports allies were unstoppable. They communicated with Murawsky and Mukherjee through videos, and later an app where they could chat with each other and learn from the group’s successes and jugaads (like the goalpost made from bathroom pipes). Mukherjee recalls one video of four tutors running, holding on to their ghoonghats but with their saris above their knees. During the pandemic, Naandi kept the programme running as the children innovated with whatever was available at home, jumping over bottles, buckets, slippers and brooms to complete the exercises prescribed by Murawsky.
A sports conference was organised where the women presented the most rewarding and most challenging aspects of this programme. “The best, they said was that the children had never got an opportunity to do this before. One said that in Ratlam we have lots of open spaces to play but these were always occupied by boys,” says Mukherjee. “The most difficult aspect was tackling parents who worried that their children would fall, their skin would become dark or that they would be disfigured for life.”
Then Vishakha Bhale Vyas, a programme quality manager at Naandi in charge of 30,000 girls who recently went back to school and completed her LLB degree, triggered more change in Gujarat’s Jambusar, where girls began playing sports with hijabs, ghagras and dupattas until they realised these were not practical pieces of clothing when running. Bhale Vyas heard of a football tournament being organised through a grassroots government sports programme and, without knowing any rules of the game, she gathered 20 girls, practised kicking a donated ball, appointed herself manager and entered the team as participants.
The team bought shorts but for footwear they made do with their black school shoes with straps. “It was the first time we were seeing a football ground and we didn’t realise how big it actually is,” says Bhale Vyas. “We had practised on a tiny ground.” Shoes broke and went flying as they made contact with the ball; the scoreboard read 10/0; and after the whistle, the team packed its bags and headed home.
“Shortly after we left, we got a call asking where we were,” says Bhale Vyas. “We didn’t realise there was a second half that was yet to be played.” That’s when she called Mukherjee and asked for a football coach.
The ‘Game Changer—Women Coaches-in-Training’ programme that began in Jambusar, Gujarat in 2021 now has 130 E level certified coaches and seven more advanced, B level certified coaches. (Photo: Naandi Foundation)
After that Murawsky and Mukherjee looked seriously at football. The sports director conducted a football camp in Jambusar. The Muslim headmaster in the neighbourhood government school immediately installed a floodlight on the school playground. “As news spread, more and more villages said they also wanted to play football,” says Mukherjee. As Murawsky spent the next year organising camps, the two women wondered if it was time to create their own coaches. The All India Football Federation offered to train some women to be basic E level certified coaches.
The ‘Game Changer—Women Coaches-in-Training’ programme that began in Jambusar, Gujarat in 2021 now has 130 E level certified coaches and seven more advanced, B level certified coaches. The latter, all from Jambusar, travel across the country teaching girls how to play football. One of them, Bhavika, a mother of two, began training girls in saris and a ghoonghat, says Mukherjee. Now she wears shorts and her mother-in-law manages the children.
“Imagine the impact they have on our sports allies,” adds Murawsky. “Seeing women just like them, who didn’t grow up with sports, now training girls to play football. The motivation they are gaining from that is helping our programme to explode.”
Mukherjee and Murawsky believe that the question of how to get more women coaches in sport should be rephrased to ask: How do we give more women the opportunity to coach sports?
In Jambusar, Bhale Vyas says the days when she had to request parents to allow their daughters to play are over. The football team has won many tournaments and the village panchayat welcomes them every time they return home victorious. “Now every school wants us to start football,” she adds. “Every weekend there are league matches at the kho kho ground.”
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BQ Prime or its editorial team.