On Saturday morning at the Ambedkar Stadium in Delhi, the buzz was about the youngest player on the pitch. It was the first semi-final of the inaugural edition of the Indian Women’s League, with Indian Super League franchise FC Pune City taking on Odisha’s Rising Student’s Union. There were at most 50 spectators to witness the action including the family members of a few players and a handful of journalists.
The player in question, Senorita Nongpluh of Pune City came on as a substitute in the second half. This was more like a routine change for the gaffer and one that has paid dividends as she had even scored one against Aizawl FC. During her cameo, the youngster looked confident on the ball upfront, dropped deeper to win possession from the left flank and even lunged in with a rash tackle once.
But nobody was trying to judge her based on the outing. It is because Senorita, touted as the discovery of the first season of India’s premier football tournament for women, is only 12 years old. She has been the only talking point for a competition that has failed to create any ripple even in the stagnant sphere of Indian football. This season in the I-League too, teenage stars are getting first-team opportunities with Baoringdao Bodo even becoming the youngest scorer in Indian top-flight football league. But to see someone one year shy of entering teenage rub her shoulders with the big names of Indian national women’s team is unprecedented for Indian football fans.
After the tie got over, it was a sight worth remembering. A group of local students were attending the game in their school uniform in what seemed to be a conducted tour and all of them lined up to take autograph of the youngest footballer of the pitch. Senorita, whose team finished second best in the fixture, obliged all of them, but only after taking permission from her coach.
Hailing from a Meghalayan family that has shifted base to Pune nearly a decade ago, the youngster has received enough patronage from his parents to take football seriously as an extra-curricular activity. His father, now a teacher by profession, had played for a few local clubs back in Shillong during his college days while his elder brother is part of the FC Pune City U-16 team. Now a student of class VII, Senorita is a football fanatic even though, at times, she fails to motivate herself enough to juggle between studies and the practice sessions.
‘Wanted to be a goalie, because I thought they didn’t need to work that hard’
“There are days when I don’t feel enthusiastic enough to attend the practice, but my parents ensure that I don’t take a break,” said Senorita, highlighting the role played by her parents. The mischievous smile returns to her face again when asked about her preferred role on the pitch. “I usually play as a striker but till a few years ago, I wished to be a goalkeeper. I thought they don’t need to work hard like other players, so it would be fun to be play in that position,” she reasoned with a sheepish smile.
However, that was not to be the case since her composure in possession is what is considered to be her biggest strength. “She had come to the Pune FC trial when she was only nine years old. But even then, her first touch was very good and I wasted no time to make her a part of the academy,” Kalpana Dass, the head coach of the FC Pune City Women’s team, told Scroll.
Dass, an Asian Football Federation A-license coach, is the one who has moulded Senorita’s career over the last few years. The former coach of the Tamil Nadu Police Women’s team has now become the best-known female coach in Pune and has worked with Pune FC and Bharat FC before. When the Pune FC academy operations shut shop and FC Pune City acquired the set-up, Dass moved there with her players.
Senorita was not handed a start in the whole competition because her mentor thought “she was not ready to play full 90 minutes yet”. In the 150-odd minutes that she was on the pitch, she dazzled in patches. After scoring a goal against Aizawl FC in the group league, she was not that impressive in the knock-out tie, but did not look out of place either.
The diminutive girl looks up to India international Eugeson Lyngdoh as her idol. “He had come once to meet us during a club programme, but I couldn’t muster enough courage to go and talk to him,” she recounted. “Apart from him, I like Bala Devi (a pivotal member of the Indian national team) and Lionel Messi.”
As much as Senorita’s story is about the emergence of a potential future star of the women’s national team, it is about the requirement of a scouting network at the grassroots level. “We need a proper framework to tap such talents and then need to hone their skills with methodical coaching,” Dass added.
The new sensation of Indian women’s football, though, is unperturbed by all the challenges that lie ahead. “I want to pursue football as a career and not as a hobby,” she said before returning to the dressing-room. The IWL campaign had come to an end, but for the prodigal daughter of the Deccan, it’s only the start of the journey.
Atanu Mitra has been covering Indian football for more than four years. He tweets @Atanu00.