Sethu FC striker Sabitra Bhandari looks up to Cristiano Ronaldo in more ways than one. It’s not just her blistering pace, dribbling skills and eye for goal that makes her stand out but also a funky hairdo and the way she celebrates scoring goals – inspired by the five-time Ballon d’Or winner.

“I have always been like this since I was a kid,” she told Scroll. “I keep following Cristiano [Ronaldo] so my hairstyle keeps on changing and I even celebrate like him,” the Nepal international explains.

Nicknamed ‘Samba’, Bhandari has taken no time to prove her mettle in the Indian Women’s League. Before Anju Tamang, she recorded the fastest goal in the tournament this season within 29 seconds against FC Kolhapur – a game where she netted four goals inside the first half.

Along with qualifying for the knockouts, Sethu have scored topped the goalscoring charts in the competition (23) and leading the charge is Bhandari.

“There is a lot of difference in terms of quality. It is not the same in Nepal.

“India are five-time champions in the SAFF Women’s Championship and the players are quite experienced. Whenever I play, it feels like an international game. I am learning bit by bit every day and it feels good to be playing here,” she added.

The road to the top was not an easy one for Bhandari, the second of four sisters and two brothers. She never featured in any age-level competition for the national team before earning a surprise call-up for the 2014 SAFF Women’s Championship.

“Before I joined the national team, I never trained because I was in my village and opportunities were few and far between,” Bhandari recalls.

“My family was very big, so it was very difficult for us to make ends meet. But during school, I played a national-level tournament. After that, I got an offer to play for the Armed Police Force in the national women’s league. Then came a call from Nepal.”

Born in the hilly district of Lamjung, Bhandari honed her skills playing along with boys when she was a kid. The 23-year-old said that she wouldn’t be allowed to play without completing household chores.

“None of the other girls used to play with me. Even their parents didn’t support them. Moreover, events were mostly in Kathmandu, so there weren’t many opportunities growing up in Lamjung.

“My brother used to play with his friends, so I joined them. I never felt, ‘I am a girl and that I should be watchful’. It never made a difference to me.”

Bhandari says that things are a lot better in her hometown.

“There girls in my village who now get a lot of support for training. They practice every single day.

“That was not the case before. But ever since I have turned into a national team player, the society’s perspective has changed. Everyone is proud of me now. There are more chances for women in my village. It’s developing,” she asserts.

Among the best finishers in South Asian football, the youngster took over Jamuna Gurung as Nepal’s second-highest goalscorer during the recently-concluded 2019 SAFF Women’s Championship. Now Bhandari is not far away from Anu Lama, who leads the tally.

“I am already living my dream of playing for the national team. But it was only after training that my performance improved. I want to break Anu di’s record,” she concluded.