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Tracing India goalkeeper Panthoi Chanu's journey from Manipur to Australia

India goalkeeper Panthoi Chanu has become the first Indian player to be signed for club football Down Under

Panthoi Chanu has joined Australia's Metro United.(Courtesy Instagram)

By Deepti Patwardhan

LAST PUBLISHED 10.04.2024  |  07:30 AM IST

Indian football may be struggling to get a foothold in the global game, but individual players from the country have started conquering new frontiers. On Saturday, goalkeeper Panthoi Chanu made history by becoming the first Indian to play in an Australian Lague. Sporting a bright green goalkeeping kit, Chanu turned up for her new club Metro United WFC in the South Australian Women’s National Premier League.

“Bala di (Ngangom Bala Devi) was among the first Indian players to play abroad," says Chanu, who has taken over as India’s No. 1 goalkeeper, over a Zoom call from Adelaide. “She had set an example for us. Since then, it was one of my goals as well, to go and play abroad. It is quite exciting to now play in a country that has hosted and done well at the Women’s World Cup." Chanu joins a growing list of Indian women’s players, like Jyoti Chauhan (playing in Croatia) and Manisha Kalyan (playing in Cyprus), showcasing their talent abroad.

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Like Indian icon Bala Devi, Chanu also hails from Manipur. She was born in the village of Keirak, which has a population of around 5,000 in a family that had little to do with sports. When she was 12, in 2008, Chanu discovered football during a grassroots school sports festival and was instantly hooked.

“I had no clue what football was till the grassroots festival," says the 28-year-old. “My coach put me on left wing. Once when we were playing, an opponent hit the ball at the goalkeeper. Our goalkeeper got very scared and started crying. So, our coach asked who will play goalkeeper? I raised my hand."

At the time, still not familiar with the intricacies of the game, Chanu had gone in determined not to let a ball through in goal on her watch. “That was the beginning of my journey, and I have stayed on course since then. It has taken a lot of hard work and struggle, but that’s what makes it worth it."

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Coming from a remote village meant she had to take early morning—5:15 am—bus rides to training when she was enrolled in a football academy in Imphal. A quick learner, Chanu made the Manipur junior state team and the Indian junior national camp within a year of taking up the sport. She started making strides on the senior circuit a few years later—signing up for national club Eastern Sporting United in 2012 and breaking into the Indian national team in 2014. But with many talented and more experienced goalkeepers around, Chanu had to wait for her turn before she became a permanent fixture in the team.

She suffered a setback in 2021 when she fractured a shin bone and had to undergo surgery. The rehab was long and frustrating, one that pushed her to consider her future in the game. Some people also told her that she won’t be playing football again. It was the first time she had been underestimated, and Chanu strengthened her resolve to come back stronger.

“Apart from the team training, I would do my individual training as well," she tells Lounge. “Every day I reserve at least 30 minutes for running, and do my drills, conditioning and training for two hours apart from the practice with the team."

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In the last couple of years, Chanu has emerged as India’s top goalkeeper and was part of the team that finished runners-up at the Turkish Women’s Cup, which took place in February. Her experience in international football was one of the clinchers for Metro United, who scouted her through the Women in Sports football clinic.

“Panthoi is very quick and mobile, has good foot skills and is positive and strong in her ball distribution, she is a good shot stopper and confident in her one-on-one decision making," Paul Morris, the head coach of Metro United, told Lounge.

Having stayed away from home since the age of 12, when she attended the Manipur state camp, Chanu is used to the life of a football nomad. But she keeps in touch with her family regularly, now more than ever since Manipur has been engulfed in strife for almost a year.

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“I think about it while playing since my family is still in Manipur," she says. “I was playing IWL (Indian Women’s League) in Gujarat and the riots broke out on May 3. After I went back home, my parents told me to have dinner as early as possible. We used to pack our bags and keep it in the car, so that we can flee quickly if required. I know it won’t happen quickly, but I do hope things get better eventually. It is not good for the younger generation to grow up in this constant state of conflict."

A sensitive woman with a strong sense of identity, Chanu hopes peace prevails in her state so the rest of India, and the world, can see all it has to offer. For now, she is busy proving herself in a new country, new footballing community. It wasn’t the best of starts for Chanu in the Australian league as her team went down 1-2 to Football SA NTC in Saturday’s match. But the Indian hopes to make her mark by the end of the season in September.

“It is definitely exciting playing in Australia," she says. "This is a very important assignment for me and to do it well, I know I have to work hard. This is a stepping stone for me. But my dream is not restricted to playing in one country." 

Deepti Patwardhan is a sportswriter based in Mumbai.

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