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The irresistible European success of footballer Jyoti Chouhan

Indian footballer Jyoti Chouhan has become a trendsetter by becoming the first Indian footballer who is an indispensable part of an European club

Jyoti Chouhan in action in Croatia.
Jyoti Chouhan in action in Croatia.

An Indian woman, playing in a European football League, scoring in a Cup final. Sounds familiar? This isn’t just one of the sub-plots of Gurinder Chadha’s hilarious and path-breaking 2002 movie, Bend It Like Beckham. It happened in real life too. On 4 June, a Sunday, Jyoti Chouhan became the first player from the country, male or female, to score in a Cup final in Europe. The spunky 23-year-old found the back of the net for ZNK Dinamo Zagreb in the Croatian Women’s Football Cup final.

One of the more telling scenes, towards the end of the movie, is when Chadha’s protagonist, Jess Bhamra, prepares to take a free kick in the final of a European tournament. Having snuck out of her sister’s wedding to play the crucial game, Jess imagines that the player wall is made up of the elderly, naysaying family members, clearly mortified that she is running around in shorts and playing football.

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It is unlikely that Chouhan, perhaps too young when the movie first hit the screens, had hallucinations of these hostile friendlies as she went for goal. But she’s well aware of the metaphorical obstacles, born out of social and cultural expectations, and the crippling doubt they can inflict.

Chouan’s Bend It Like Beckham moment came in the 47th minute of the match against ZNK Split. Unmarked, the Indian received the ball from the right, controlled it with the first touch and side-footed accurately past the diving goalkeeper. Chouhan had also assisted Dinamo’s first goal in the 10th minute. 

Though her team lost the final 2-3, playing for a major European club like Dinamo Zagreb, helping them to the Cup finals and a third-place finish in Croatian Women’s First Football League was a badge of honour for the Indian.

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“It feels nice to score in important matches,” says the 23-year-old. “Everyone here, including coaches and players, are very happy with me, my performance. They support and push me to do better. And playing for such a big club, Dinamo is big in men’s as well as women’s football. It was nice to get recognised. Men’s matches are a bit too crowded but a lot of fans come for women’s matches as well.”

She secured a contract with the Zagreb club last August. In her first season abroad, Chouhan not only made the playing XI regularly but also became the first Indian to score a hat-trick in Europe when she netted three goals against Agram Zagreb in the Croatian First Women’s League. “I come from a small village in Madhya Pradesh called Sardarpur, no one would have thought I would get this far,” Chouhan says. “Now that I am at this level, the same people who were against me and my family, are celebrating me. They go home and ask about my whereabouts. There is a degree of joy but I also feel a bit sad because these people didn’t support us when we needed it.”

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The third of five sisters, Chouhan had started playing football, barefeet, when she was in class IV, at a ground close to her house. She was one of the few girls in her village who played the sport and was thus regularly drafted into boys’ teams. “There was a boys’ sports hostel close to our house and they would play football at the ground,” she explains. “My first coach felt I was good enough to play at the advanced level.” The tough upbringing stood her good stead, especially in Croatia, when she had to encounter bigger, stronger rivals.

Chouan’s parents had stood behind her steadfastly when she took up the sport but her life changed dramatically after her father died in an accident. He was in the animal husbandry business, and the sole earning member of the family.

“At that time, I was not sure what we were going to do with our life,” she recalls. “My extended family was quite close till my father was around but once he passed away, they started keeping their distance. They thought they will have to look after us, our education. My neighbours told my mother, “What’s the use of letting them play and study? They are going to get married eventually, better to make them work.” My mother told them, “If you don’t want to help them, fine. But don’t tell me what to do about their future.”

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Her mother worked as a daily labourer to make sure their ambitions stayed on track. “I worked hard at football, sometimes even ignored studies, because my main goal was to shut those people up,” says Chouhan. It helped that the forward was a standout performer and is blessed with a powerful shot. As she excelled in junior national tournaments, she would receive some scholarship money from the state government. During her last year of school nationals, she was scouted by Mumbai club Kenkre FC. This kicked off her journey as a professional footballer.

Chouhan, whose younger sisters Deepika and Payal also play football, has since played for the most successful Indian Women’s League club, Gokulam Kerala, and was part of national team camps on two occasions, 2016 and 2018.

Last August, Chouhan and India midfielder Soumya Guguloth were signed on by Dinamo Zagreb. Though she took some time to adjust, Chouhan was keen on making the most of the opportunity.

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“Unfortunately, in India we don’t get to play 10 months at a stretch,” she says. “At first, I was worried because the players here were much taller and had big personalities. But I soon realised that if I get the kind of training they do, there’s nothing that can stop me from becoming just as good. Unlike in India, here they hit the gym hard for two hours and schedule in a football practice on the same day. I would struggle with the load earlier but not any more.” Chouhan is proud of the fact that she lifts the biggest weights in the gym session: 15-20kg for upper body, 65-70kg for lower body, 30kg bench press.

While most Indian players have struggled to make a mark abroad, Chouhan had become her team’s go-to scorer by the end of the season. Along with the hat-trick in the League in May, she scored four times in the last three Cup matches as her team finished runners-up, including once in the final. Chouhan has used the obstacles and doubts as stepping stones to take Indian women’s football to a new high.

Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.

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