India’s Manisha Kalyan: From a village in Punjab to European football

The 22-year-old golden girl of Indian football has been marked as one for the future by her coach and experts.

NAVI MUMBAI, INDIA - JANUARY 20: Manisha Kalyan of India and Samaneh Chahkandi of Iran vie for the ball during the AFC Women's Asian Cup Group A match between India and Iran at DY Patil Stadium on January 20, 2022 in Navi Mumbai, India. (Photo by Thananuwat Srirasant/Getty Images)
Manisha Kalyan, right, has quickly risen to be the top player in the Indian women's team [File: Thananuwat Srirasant/Getty Images]

Mumbai, India – In the quiet embrace of a small Indian village, where dreams are often whispered against the backdrop of simplicity, emerged a football prodigy destined for greatness.

Meet Manisha Kalyan, the young Indian football sensation whose long journey from the narrow lanes of Muggowal in Punjab to the illustrious stage of the UEFA Women’s Champions League is nothing short of a remarkable odyssey.

Kalyan participated in athletics and basketball during her school days before football captured her heart. Daring to dream beyond the confines of her rural beginnings, she made the cut for India in 2019, at the age of 17.

Last year, Kalyan received the golden opportunity to sign with the Cypriot club Apollon Ladies. A rare chance for Indian footballers, given the country’s ranking of 65 in women’s FIFA rankings and 102 in men’s.

“I made the right decision to join Apollon because I am improving and learning new things here,” Kalyan told Al Jazeera from Limassol.

“Even before I was called up for India, I dreamt of playing abroad because when you begin playing abroad at an early age, you can improve and contribute more to the national team.”

Kalyan signed for Apollon after playing for three Indian clubs, including Gokulam Kerala, with whom she won the top-tier Indian Women’s League twice.

Known for her speed and ability to adapt to several positions, Kalyan has been recognised as one of the best Indian players in recent times.

The All India Football Federation named her the Women’s Player of the Year in 2021-22 and 2022-23 and she was also part of the India team that won gold at the South Asian Games in 2019.

Kalyan shot to fame in 2021 after she became the first Indian to score a goal against Brazil in a friendly match, which India lost 6-1.

She rates it as the most special goal of her career.

‘If you’re quiet, you won’t get the ball’

The offer from Apollon did not come as a surprise for Kalyan, who revealed she had been attracting interest from foreign clubs since that goal against Brazil.

Even though Kalyan was over the moon to receive interest from Apollon, she had very little knowledge about what she was signing up for.

“When I decided to sign for Apollon, I did not know much about Cyprus. I did a bit of research about the club and the country and felt it would be a good call. I had seen some of the matches from the Cypriot First Division and knew Apollon had played in the Women’s Champions League, where I wanted to participate,” she said.

A language barrier and some cultural differences made Kalyan’s start to life in Cyprus difficult but she slowly found her way.

“At the time I joined, I didn’t understand English as much as I do now and couldn’t talk much with my teammates, which was difficult,” Kalyan recalled.

“Now that I can speak a bit of English, I have built a connection with them. I think communication is important both on and off the field because if you’re quiet during games, you won’t get the ball. Once I started to communicate during the games, things improved.”

Kalyan’s dream to play in the Women’s Champions League came true last August when she featured against Latvia’s SFK Riga in the qualifying round. Then in September, she added another feather to her cap by becoming the first Indian to score in the Women’s Champions League when she found the net against Georgia’s FC Samegrelo in the qualifiers.

Coming on as a second-half substitute in that game, Kalyan scored a stunning left-footed goal from inside the box.

“Having the chance to play and score in the Women’s Champions League has been the best part of my life,” Kalyan said.

“I was quite happy at the time, but now I have bigger goals. I want to improve individually in the next year and perform better for India.”

‘Modern left-back’

Since joining Apollon, Kalyan has transitioned from an attacker to a defender.

In India, while playing for Sethu or Gokulam Kerala, Kalyan would feature on the wings or as a striker, but she has been deployed as a left-back at Apollon.

“She is a very good modern left-back, someone who likes to attack,” said Apollon coach Andreas Matthaiou. “In my opinion, good players can play everywhere.

“She is very fast and fires very good crosses from the left. She can run throughout for 90 minutes and technically she is good, too.”

Having taken over the team earlier this month, Matthaiou described Kalyan as a “hard worker” and a “quick learner”.

“I am very happy with her,” he said.

Indian women’s football expert Anirudh Menon believes Kalyan’s journey is already a “success story” for the country, which has seen very few women play in top-tier leagues overseas, especially in Europe.

India’s all-time top-scorer Bala Devi is the highest profile player to play in Europe, having represented top-tier Scottish club Rangers, while others have played in the lower leagues in Europe or top divisions in small Asian countries such as Bhutan, Maldives and Nepal.

“Bala Devi is arguably the best women’s player India has produced, and she got the opportunity only when she turned 30. So if she couldn’t play abroad in her prime, it was quite unlikely that anybody else could have,” Menon said.

Poor game time for women

The Indian women’s national team is ranked higher than their male counterparts, but they still receive fewer opportunities.

The Indian Women’s League (IWL) usually lasts for a month. While its current season has stretched to about four months, it still fares poorly when compared with top leagues elsewhere that run for more than seven months.

“When I played the IWL, the league would run for one month but after that, you wouldn’t know what’s next,” the lean 22-year-old said.

“If you are a part of the Indian team, you get exposure through tournaments often but the rest of the domestic players would barely get any game time.

“To become a good player, you need to play continuously – at least once a week. No matter how many times you train, you only discover your calibre and areas of improvement when you play a competitive match.”

Kalyan, who won the Cypriot First Division with Apollon last season, said she has become a better player since moving to Europe.

“The main difference between the women’s game in Europe and India is that the players in Europe have clean touches. When they receive the ball, their first touch is quite good. Even the passing is great,” Kalyan added.

“Players in Europe have a great understanding of the game –  their runs, positioning and tactics are all quite impressive. Whereas in India, the players aren’t good at their basics.”

Menon, who reported on Kalyan’s career in India, said she has improved at Apollon by playing against opponents of her calibre.

“One thing I noticed is that she is not better than everybody,” Menon said.

“If you watched the IWL, you could see that in most games, she could do whatever she wanted to … But in Cyprus, you can see that she is up against opponents of her calibre, and she is working harder than used to in India.”

Matthaiou, her coach at Apollon, believes Kalyan can build a great future if she continues to improve.

“I believe she is a player who can have a game-changing impact.”

Source: Al Jazeera