Sanju Yadav is probably one of the best Indian women's footballer currently. It was not much of a surprise when she was named the Women's Player of the Year by the All India Football Federation (AIFF).
But she has had to fight her battles to reach the level she has right now. Sanju Yadav, who hails from a small village called Alakhpura of Bhiwani district in Haryana, did not have a smooth sailing while pursuing her interests in football.
Yadav got her first football tutorial at the Government Senior School, Alakhpura, under physical instructor Gordhan Dass when she was in Class V.
"That time it was casual. I had not thought that one day I will become a professional football player. In our village, football was the only option for girls to take up as a sport. Moreover, the villagers would constantly say that girls should not play and should rather concentrate on household chores. But my family turned deaf ears to them and they have supported me through thick and thin.
"There were times I have played against boys. Now I think that has helped me a lot to get better as a footballer," stated the player to Goal.
She started participating in various district-level and state-level competitions. The youngster had always dreamt for the stars and wanted to represent India in the international arena. Her efforts finally bore fruit when she made a breakthrough for the U14 team that was set to travel to Sri Lanka.
"It was a completely different feeling. I got minutes in that tournament and more importantly, I learnt a lot about international football."
Yadav's career-graph soared exponentially and she became the youngest footballer in the senior India team when she got a call before the South Asian Games in 2016. On February 13, she made her debut against Bangladesh and also found the net in her first appearance in the famed blue jersey.
Later that year, she took part in the Indian Women's League (IWL) for her local side Alakhpura. She was fine form in the preliminary rounds and scored 11 times and ended up topping the goal-scoring charts. She single-handedly fired her side to the semi-finals where they were beaten by eventual champions Eastern Sporting Union.
Recognising her efforts on the domestic and international arena, the AIFF (All India Football Federation) bestowed upon her the Emerging Player of the Year award in that year.
"The AIFF has been very supportive all throughout my career. The exposure trips that they organise and even the tournaments that they host in India help us to get the required competitive game time. When we play in Europe against superior teams, we get to know where we are lacking. They are superior to us both physically and technically and only by playing against them more frequently, we can reach their level," opines Yadav.
Following her success in the sport, the IWL winner with Gokulam Kerala FC has become a role model in her village. She started her journey with bricks as cones and a bamboo ladder for speed drills. Now, over a hundred girls from her village flock to the football coaching centre to hone their skills under Sonika Bijarnia, a licensed coach appointed by the Haryana government.
"Things have definitely changed for the better. More girls are taking the sport seriously. Although, there are a considerable number of people who still oppose girls playing football, many have come in support as well."
The 22-year old is one of the regulars under Maymol Rocky, coach of the India Women's team. The team scripted history when they qualified for the 2020 Olympics 2nd round of qualifiers, and if they had a bit of luck they could have even progressed to the next stage but got eliminated to Myanmar only goal difference.
Yet Yadav is hopeful that the team will only come back stronger and better than ever before.
"Our next target is the AFC Asian Cup 2022. We must do well in that tournament."
The men's team had a brilliant start to their continental campaign in 2019 but failed to progress to the knockouts by a whisker. It remains to be seen whether the Blue Tigresses can finish on a high note in a competition that they are going to participate after a hiatus of 19 years.
Yadav believes they can.