Saturday, November 22, 2014

Dribbling from Mangalbaria to Islamabad!


No account of women’s football in Sikkim can begin without mention of Palden Sir and his Girls Football Academy at Manglabaria in West Sikkim. Although of very recent vintage – it opened only in 2005, the academy has institutionalised women’s football in Sikkim, approaching it as a team sport and extending girl footballers professional coaching and earnest inspiration against the occasional tokenism that the sport used to receive in the past. The success of the academy can be gauged from the fact that the GFA team lines up for Sikkim at national tournaments and five of its players have been shortlisted for the national U-19 training camp, of whom two – sisters Nima Lhamu Bhutia and Lako Phuti Bhutia – have played for team India.
And to think that the journey began with a Physical Education Teacher’s hope to prepare a girls team from his school good enough to make a mark at district-level tournaments.
Palden Bhutia started the Girls Football Academy from his house at Mangalbaria in West Sikkim on 27 February 2005. He is presently an Assistant Director with the Sports & Youth Affairs Department and was a Physical Education Teacher at Mangalbaria Senior Secondary School back in 2005.
When asked what motivated him to devote time, energy and finances to launch a football academy for girls, that too in a village in the districts, Palden Sir says: “The main reason behind starting the academy was my desire to take a girls football team from Mangalbaria to at least district-level success”.
He points out that rural Sikkim has an impressive pool of potentially brilliant girl footballers, who, due to lack of exposure and training, do not get the chance to dazzle at the competitive level. Men’s football finds many promoters and allows many opportunities, but girls football, it needs to be admitted, remains largely ignored and the few opportunities created for it are mostly token efforts limited to schools in urban settings.
This was clearly noticed and felt by Palden Sir, himself a footballer of recognised skills, having played professionally in Sikkim, and he resolved to coach a winning team from Mangalbaria. He also believed that for a football squad to deliver well, they would not only have to train together, but ideally also live together. He resolved the latter quandary by opening his home in Mangalbaria as a hostel for the 12 girls he picked for training.
Remember, this was his own initiative and had not backing, financial or otherwise from any other quarter; at least not back in 2005 when the initiative began.
“I started the hostel in my house and treated them as my own daughters and started their practice at the Mangalbaria Senior Secondary School playground,” he shares.
The initial strength of 12 girls went up to 18 in a few years and as the girls passed out or signed up for the next level of the sport, has come down again it to original strength of 12. The original dozen were Under-14 girls from Dentam, Hee-Bermiok, Soreong and its surrounding areas of West District.
The Girls Football Academy, Mangalbaria, has become a centre of excellence and has consistently produced quality footballers for the state and the nation.  As mentioned earlier, Nima Lhamu Bhutia and Lako Phuti Bhutia, sisters from Mangalbaria, have played for the national team, with Lako in the current squad as well.
“Initially no one believed that girls could be coached and inspired to play football to such high levels. Many suggested that I would be putting my efforts to better use if I started a boys academy instead. But I knew in my heart that I wanted to create opportunities for the girls. Now, after seeing the results, everyone has come around and appreciate the role and achievements of the academy,” Mr Bhutia beams.
He underlines that the hard-work and success of the girls has brought positive recognition and identity for Mangalbaria as the bedrock of women’s football in Sikkim apart from developing a sporting culture and encouraging people there to live healthier lives.
He mentions that seeing the performance of the academy and the success of its girls, many girls teams have come up in the surrounding areas and other parts of the state as well.
“It was heartening to see that the academy’s team was playing with local boys teams during practice and managing to hold their own. Due to them, lots of girls have now been turning up for the practice sessions at Mangalbaria School round,” he states.
As for the numerous achievements of the academy- Nima Lhamu Bhutia who was in the first batch trained at the academy went on to play for the country up to the AFC level. Likewise, another promising footballer, her sister, Lako Phuti Bhutia has also played for the country in different categories and is currently in the national team.
Mangmit Lepcha, Nimita Gurung and Bhoj Kumari Subba were selected for and attended the U-19 India camp. The rest girls of the academy have played for the state and their district several times. The best moment for the academy was when the entre team was picked to represent the State in national level tournaments. They have matched that feat twice more since then. Even when the entire GFA squad was not Team Sikkim, several of its players would routinely be picked to wear the State colours.
Meanwhile, Lako has been signed by a Maldives-based football club, New Radiant SC, and Sujana Rai has been playing professionally for Eastern Sporting Club, Manipur.
Mr Bhutia has been managing the academy with the support of his parents, well wishers and from his own pocket. “Of course it is very difficult to manage the academy but I am committed to providing exposure to rural girls and this motivates me to work even more for them,” he states.
He further adds that seeing his passion and recognising the positive impact of the academy, his wife, Chumden Bhutia, and two children and some of his relatives have been supporting the initiative wholeheartedly.
About his future plans, Palden Sir shares that he is currently working on expanding his academy from its Mangalbaria base to a district-level academy based out of Gyalshing where he can coach and train students till the college level. “I want to develop the academy as a model for the whole State but that will require much wider support,” he states.
“My ultimate dream is to see more Sikkimese girls featuring in the starting eleven of Team India. Our girls have the potential to do that. What they need is our consistent support,” he says.
43-year-old Palden Bhutia hails from Hee-Patal in West Sikkim, and had joined Mangalbaria Senior Secondary School as a Physical Education Teacher in 1998. He is also a keen footballer and has played for many clubs of the state.
“I was a footballer, but got the chance to see and play football at Paljor Stadium only when I was 22 years old,” he shares.
“This experience made me realise that there were many more like me from the rural areas who did not receive the right exposure at the right age. And if this was the case with boys, I realised it must be that much worse for girls. My focus is to provide exposure to rural talent at the right platform,” he explains.
For the further development of girl’s football, Mr Bhutia expressed that there was the need of more competition and tournaments for girls. And also more support. “The football clubs of the state need to include, encourage and prepare girls teams. There is need for a football league for them,” he states.
As for an explanation to the headline of this piece – Lako began playing football in Mangalbaria and is currently in Islamabad, Pakistan, as part of Team India at the South Asian Football Federation Women’s Championship underway there [in its last match, India thrashed Afghanistan 12-nil to reach the semis].

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