Sports always drove the best of me, and one can say that it was the induced effect of living in different parts of India while growing up. However, like every coin, there’s a flip side and thus it came with its limitations of not being accessible to the football culture. Later in 2014, I got introduced to one of the most watched series in football – the English Premier League. I became (and still am) a religious supporter of Chelsea FC and trust me when I say, time and tide are not some factors that hindered my plans to watch any upcoming matches. I enjoyed the feeling of team spirit that plunged during these moments and I would wonder what it must be like to work for a sports organization, or in specific, for a football organization.
But as they say, the more you seek, the more optimized your goals become, and I was on an active outlook until I found a perfect opportunity with a platform that enabled grassroots talent with a structured career path in the professional football ecosystem – in India and abroad. We can collectively agree that India is still trying to make its footprint in the international football fraternity and the only way to make it happen is by creating a pipeline for the talent that has immense value, throughout the country. We are also one of the largest spectators of the game in the world, so the enthusiasm and potential are at an all-time high!
Women In Football
Women in football are a whole different story but to match ground and level the field, we should be proud as the Indian women U-17 team made it to the FIFA World Cup for the first time this year. During our efforts, international scouts and agents have commended the spirit of football among girls in India. It is also interesting to note that we have received great feedback on some of the players (both boys and girls) who have the potential to make it big in the industry through practice and adequate strategies.
My personal story has taken various turns to reach here today. I wanted to join the Indian Army as an Engineer and serve the nation, but it didn’t happen. Like all of us, I tried my hand in various places, and pursued an advanced course in Event Planning, since organizing and hosting always piqued my interest. Luckily, around the same time, I came across the internship at India Khelo Football as a Program Managing Intern. Yes, I started as an intern and got quite intrigued by the thought process of founding members Mr. Phani Bhushan and Mr. Hitesh Joshi. However, what brought me closer was the concept of creating a transparent platform for kids who want to pursue football professionally. It was an absolute delight to join the team so early and run on-ground trials pan-India, with a motto of AAP KHELO, MAUKA HUM DENGE! Life being a circle, made me feel that I am serving the nation in one way or another, being affiliated with a non-profit organization.
When I joined IKF, I was 26, and the leaders I worked with were quite experienced. They all had a definite way of working that differed from mine, especially when it came to on-ground operations. IKF being a brainchild, was entirely a new concept with a new set of rules, so there were times when it took a lot of convincing to do things my way. The trial procedure was entirely different from what the industry has seen so sometimes the discussions and convincing went on for days but my dream was much bigger than the thought process of a few people and in the end, the dream prevailed. While I have covered from Ladakh to Manipur for trials, there were times when people just presumed my inability to do the work as I was young. Being a female became the cherry on top to suggest that I won’t be able to handle the stress of organizing an entire trial from scratch in a new city. Since actions speak louder than words, my work spoke for itself.
So while I was applying for the internship at IKF, less did I know that I was one of the first volunteers hired by the team. So the journey started with managing some huge projects, and great opportunities. With due hard work and dedication, I became the first female to lead the Operations team. While working, I met the founding members and we would have regular debates and discussions to reach our ultimate aim. Apart from the founding members, I met some other football enthusiasts who share the same passion as us and became the literal backbone of the organization. When someone says Team IKF, countless volunteers work day and night to deliver what we promise.
While we started season 1, we connected with various Regional Execution Partners pan India who share the same values as us and believe in the development of football. The network of REP since then has only increased as more and more people decided to join us in their mission. REPs are the most essential and core part of our platform as through their extensive efforts, the platform becomes accessible to the players from even the interiors of India.
As a female in the football organization led mostly by male members, I can be certain that my work will reflect the change we all have longed for. As of now, it’s about leading on-ground trials or making a tech platform, but I am sure that we will have more females working with us to develop the game technically and operationally. We already have women who are leading a few fronts in the organization, be it as a volunteer, head, or REP, but I am sure in the coming years, we will be dominated by women in leadership roles.
Nirja Shekhawat is the Founding Member & Operations Head at India Khelo Football. The views expressed are the author’s own.
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