DHAKA, BANGLADESH: India U-17 Women’s Team captain Heena Khatun can barely stop giggling for enough time to answer questions. Every question is followed by a spate of laughter, sometimes nervous but mostly astonished at the journey she’s traversed in the space of just a few years.

Khatun comes from the small village of Majauhwa in Uttar Pradesh. By the standards of small beginnings, hers are miniscule. Majauhwa falls in Ballia district, in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Football exists only as an afterthought, a way to expend energy when school is done. And even then, the fields are dominated by boys and men.

When Khatun started playing the sport three years ago, it was due to her school coach Jaikumar Rao’s insistence she could make something of it. From playing in school, she was urged to make time and come to the village ground in the evening, where Rao conducted training sessions for a larger group of kids. There was just one other girl in the group, a fact that did not go unnoticed — neither by her, her fellow trainees nor the neighbours in the tightly knit village community. That did not stop her from lacing up and going to play everyday. “Khelna tha toh khela maine (I just wanted to play, so I did),” Khatun laughs.

While it seems easy now, Khatun is careful to highlight the support her family gave her to play the game. Playing with a team that consisted mostly of boys caused consternation among the neighbours, and became a cause for idle gossip. Many neighbours approached her parents and asked them to put a stop to it. “I was adamant I wanted to play,” Khatun says, “And my parents never stopped me.” It was perhaps the best decision they made.

When Khatun was picked to be part of the India U-17 National camp in Indore, it sparked celebrations back home. It also sparked change. “Now there are so many girls playing football at home,” Khatun says. Safe to say the neighbours have taken to the beautiful game too.

Khatun was captain of the team when they travelled to Jordan for a pair of friendlies in preparation for the SAFF U-17 Women’s Championship. It was the first time the team — a fresh batch of players — had played together as a unit outside the country. “It was great to have gone and played those friendlies,” she says. “We got good results (the team won both games comprehensively without conceding a single goal) and it helped boost our confidence and create a stronger bond.”

After Jordan, the team returned to Indore to resume camp and Khatun believes the time spent together is useful for them going forward. The Young Tigresses started their SAFF U-17 Women’s Championship campaign with an emphatic win over Nepal. While the four goals they scored garnered a lot of praise, Khatun believes there’s a lot of scope for improvement.

“There’s much more for us to improve and do better,” she says very matter of factly. “Hopefully we can show that in the next game.”

India will take on hosts Bangladesh on Friday, March 24, 2023, at the BSSS Mostafa Kamal Stadium in Dhaka. The match will kick off at 18:45 IST and will be streamed live on the Sportzworkz YouTube Channel.

You can watch India’s last game against Nepal


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