Manisha Kalyan has broken the glass ceiling a few times within a year. In November she became the first Indian to score a goal in the AFC Women’s Club Championship. A month later she became the first Indian to net against Brazil in a senior match. And on Thursday, she became the first ever Indian to compete in a Uefa Champions League match.
After she helped Gokulam Kerala defend their Indian Women’s League title in May, the 20-year-old signed up for Cypriot champions Apollon Limassol Ladies FC.
The club is competing in the first round of qualifiers for the main Uefa Women’s Champions League draw, coming up against Latvian club SFK Riga in their first match. Kalyan started on the bench but got her chance to compete when she came on as a 60th minute substitute, donning the same jersey No 12 she wore during her time with Gokulam. She was elected by her team to take four corner kicks in the half-hour she played.
Apollon went on to win the match 3-0 to move to the final of the opening round of the qualification stage, where they will take on FC Zurich on Sunday. A win there takes them through to the second round, where they will play a two-leg, home-away match against another first round stage winner. Progressing through from Round 2 will take the Cypriot club to the main draw of the Champions League.
Before Kalyan’s achievement on Thursday, Bangalore FC’s Gurpreet Singh Sandhu was the only Indian to have played a continental match for a European club, when he featured in Norwegian club Stabaek’s Europa League qualification match against Connah’s Quay Nomads from Wales.
The Europa League is considered second tier to the top flight Champions League in men’s football when it comes to Europe’s continental club competitions.
Sandhu asserted, late on Thursday, that he had been staying updated with Kalyan’s progress and took to social media to offer his congratulations to her.
“Tracking the updates where Manisha Kalyan becomes the first Indian footballer to play in a Champions League game,” he tweeted.
“What a moment, and what a hero. What she’s gone and done needs to be spoken about louder.”
And this achievement comes from a player who first made it to the national camp only in 2019.
On 9 August, Manisha and Sunil Chhetri were named as the 2021-22 AIFF Women’s Footballer of the Year, and the 2021-22 Men’s Footballer of the Year, respectively.
“Manisha has come up with some outstanding performances for the National Team, and also her club,” Women’s National Team Head Coach Thomas Dennerby had said. “She has scored goals, and also assisted on a regular basis. Blessed with excellent speed and being a good dribbler, she has the potential to play in bigger leagues in the future. She’s young, and still developing but has been our best player.”
Growing up in Mugowal village in the Hoshiarpur district of Punjab, Kalyan used to be taunted for being the only girl playing football with boys. But it’s undue criticism, she asserted, her parents refused to entertain as they continued to back her.
Years later, when she scored against Brazil, the situation back home changed and her family had been congratulated by the same naysayers.
It’s a story not unfamiliar to a woman athlete – across sport – in India.
Kalyan’s achievement come with the added significance of something to cheer for Indian football fans at a time when the All India Football Federation has been suspended by Fifa.
It’s uncertain when the ban will be lifted, but Kalyan’s growth has provided that one glimmer of hope that, even if the administrative side is in turmoil, the players are still aiming higher.