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
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

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
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.


Brown Pundits