During India’s recent tournament in Brazil where they played the hosts, Chile and Venezuela, the commentators reckoned the team’s best attacking outlet was Manisha Kalyan. Every time the ball went to her, there was something happening. Whether pushing the ball into space and trying to fashion a crossing chance, or trying to dribble past opponents or taking shots from distance or cutting in and trying to find a final pass. It didn’t always come off, and India were largely chasing the game in three matches, but when the ball was under her feet, there was excitement.

And of course, come what may in the rest of her career, she will forever be remembered as the footballer who scored for India against Brazil in a senior international tournament. No one can take that away from her.

It has, of course, not been an easy journey. She endured criticism for playing with the boys of her village during her school time but naysayers have turned into admirers after her goal against the mighty Brazil in a recent tournament in Manaus.

Manisha scored India’s lone goal in the 1-6 defeat against former World Cup runners-up Brazil in the four-nation tournament in Manaus, making her a name to watch out for ahead of the AFC Women’s Asian Cup in Mumbai and Pune next month.

“I used to play with the boys of my village when I was in school. Once or twice, there were complaints to my parents why I am the only girl playing among the boys,” Manisha said during a virtual interaction, arranged by All India Football Federation, as reported by PTI.

“They said it was not good for a girl to play with boys but my parents always backed me, supported me. So I did not take those complaints seriously,” said the 20-year-old, who hails from Mugowal village in Punjab’s Hoshiarpur district.

The situation changed after her return from Brazil.

“Many villagers came to meet my parents and congratulated them, saying I did the right thing (by opting career in sport).”

A passionate fan of Ronaldinho, Manisha used to watch a lot of videos of the former Ballon d’or winner Brazilian star.

“My friends at my village used to call me Dinho. When I first made my Instagram account, it was named ‘mkd’ for Manisha Kalyan Dinho. I also love to watch Messi, his passing accuracy and his finishing,” she said.

Initially, interested in athletics and basketball, Manisha shifted to football on the advice of her school Physical Education Teacher when she was in class eight.

“Before 8th standard I was playing basketball, running 100m and 200m. Our PET teacher was a footballer and he asked me if I want to play in district football team. He took my trial and I got selected. I also felt very good and told the coach that I will play football only. I started football training after school.”

She left her village school as it was was up to eighth standard only and the new school which was 15km from her house had better football facilities. She honed her initial skills there.

“I used to go there by cycle. There were better players, good diet and I learnt a lot,” she said.

“After that Kenkre FC’s offer came and I played in IWL for Sethu FC. Then came the call up for national U-17 team to play in BRICS Cup.”

After her stints in the U-18 and U-19 national teams, Manisha made her way to the senior side. She also played for Gokulam Kerala in the first AFC Women’s Club Champions League last month.

Manisha said the goal against Brazil has given her more confidence though she needs improvement in a lot of areas in her game.]

“Since I joined the national camp in 2019, I have improved on my basics in which I was poor. I have worked on to improve my first touch.

“When I play as winger, initially my first touch used to go out but I learnt how to keep it in. My shooting accuracy was not very good, I worked on that also.”

In an earlier interview, Manisha had also said that teamwork involved in football was really interesting to her and that is she fell in love with this game. And despite the three defeats in Brazil against South American sides, it was that teamwork that stood out for the Indians. They seem to be relishing the chance to test themselves against the superior opponents, and the first half against Brazil will live long in the memory of those who watched it live in the early morning hours in India.

She said the national team has improved a lot in the recent past, especially this year after playing a lot of international matches. She said India can qualify for the knock-out round in the AFC Asian Cup.

“The South Americans were a bit taller but we have improved on our fitness, strength and stamina. Earlier, we used to think that we are physically weak but now we are much better and we are not afraid of any team. We just need to work on some basics.

“Skill-wise, I feel we are a bit lacking in our basics like first touch, mis-passes etc. But we are not lacking in speed and strength.”

The aim remains the Asian Cup for the Indian team coached by Thomas Dennerby.

“Firstly, playing against Brazil was such a huge thing, so was scoring. But that does not change out main aim, which is to do well in the AFC Asian Cup. All of that was done so that we could prepare better for the tournament, and we want to do well in Asia,” Manisha is quoted as saying by AIFF.

“We gained a lot of experience against the higher-ranked teams and we got to learn so much from them. We used to be nervous facing tough opponents, but after having faced such big teams, we don’t feel that pressure anymore. We don’t fear any team and just want to play good football against them and give them tough competition.”

(With AIFF and PTI inputs)