In Kashmir, where hundreds of football enthusiasts would once turn up every morning and evening for a friendly game, most of the maidans (fields) lay desolate. Like the rest of the world, the coronavirus pandemic has caused upheaval in the troubled South Asian region.
When life was 'normal', many would play the game for fun and a few would manage to make a career. Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there is no buzz on the field, with most of the tournaments now cancelled in the Indian-administered Himalayan area.
But even a pandemic has been unable to dull the spirits of Nadiya Nighat, a top female football coach from Kashmir. Given the violent history of the region and its paucity of sporting stars, Nadiya's story is an exceptional one.
Nadiya, 23, hails from Srinagar’s congested Rambagh area. It’s nestled in the vicinity of Lal Chowk, the famous square that has witnessed all the political turmoil in the region.
Sport is not high on the list of priorities for many girls in the subcontinent. But despite all the taunts she received while growing up, Nadiya has remained dedicated to the game. In fact, she aims to start a team for girls.
“At times, family pressure and taunts left me depressed. But, keep on moving ahead to keep the ball rolling. I aim to train my wards irrespective of gender,” Nadiya said.
There are many female players in the country who are trying to make a name for themselves, often without access to equipment. Which is why Nadiya, who participated in the 2016/17 Indian Women's League season in Uttar Pradesh, is determined to help other young women through football.
It’s now over a decade since Nadiya first dreamt of becoming an elite footballer and donning the jersey of the Indian women’s football team. That chance has not come, but her courage has set an example for others.
Nadiya, the first female football coach from the Kashmir region, recalls the old days when she used to be be bullied on the field.
“Back in 2013, I couldn’t play [a match] at Srinagar’s Polo Ground,” she said. “The opposition questioned my selection in a team of boys, and that left me dejected. I felt the pain when people passed comments. However, the same lot hail my work culture [now].”
Brought up in a middle-class family, Nadiya used to face the wrath of her mother for participating in cricket matches in her area. She also developed the habit of stopping the cricket ball with her feet, much to her teammates’ chagrin. These little acts of defiance gave her solace and courage.
“My mother used to beat me for playing with boys – and if I stayed outside for a long period. Now, all this has changed. I am delighted to have such parents who have backed me through thick and thin.”
Mohammad Abdullah, a football veteran, spotted Nadiya and suggested she visit Amar Singh College in Srinagar in the summer of 2007. At the age of 11, she joined the Amar Singh College Football Academy. She trained alongside 47 boys, which pushed her further to chase her dreams.
“My coach [Abdullah] has been my inspiration. Once he told me that he would continue to train me even if he had to stop training the boys.”
Back then, Nadiya was too young to fully understand the game. But her progress still delighted her father, Mohammad Sidiq Batloo. “I am happy to see how far she has come after facing a lot of hardships,” he said. “The way she fought, I am proud of her.”
Her efforts were recognised by Intikhab Alam, who also serves as an Under-19 coach of the Jammu and Kashmir Football Association (JKFA).
In 2015, Nadiya set up the Jeeya Jaan 7 Football Club, inspired by Cristiano Ronaldo's jersey number. Jeeya Jaan is her nickname.
Apart from her coach Abdullah, Nadiya has also picked up various aspects of the game from footballer Shahnawaz Ahmed. YouTube videos have also helped her. Nadiya, who played as a striker, won multiple medals at national and state-level games.
“Whenever I felt that I needed to improve on a few things, I would switch to YouTube to watch Ronaldo’s videos,” said Nadiya.
By 2014, Nadiya, who relied on basic training modules, had completed her coaching course with the JKFA. At the Rambagh Grassroots Football Centre in Amar Singh College, she trained more than 40 kids in different age groups.
“With time, the number increased gradually,” recalled Nadia. “I am indebted to J&K Football Association which has helped me in every possible way. So much so, they provided me with 25 pairs of boots for my wards.”
The JJ7 Football Club’s boys' team ended up runners-up to IFC Nowgam in 2016 during the Khelo Kashmir [Play Kashmir] tournament, which included 32 teams. Nadiya believes that it helped her to be recognised.
She continues to play a pivotal role in grass-roots development with the JKFA, even though the pandemic has restricted her to online demonstrations for her students.
Nadiya cleared her Asian Football Confederation [AFC] coaching badges between 2015 and 2018, but her plans to upgrade her skills have been hit by the virus. “I was supposed to get my AFC B license this summer, but the deadly outbreak has delayed those plans,” she said. “For this course, my overall expenditure would be 2,50,000 rupees [$3,400].”
Like most sportspersons in the region who are not elite-level cricketers, Nadiya has struggled to get sponsors. With an eye on the future, she enrolled herself at Patiala’s National Institute of Sports (NIS) for a short-term coaching course in 2016.
As of now, including Nadiya, there are only 93 coaches and 67 referees registered under the All India Football Federation (AIFF).
Her hard work is a matter of pride for Zameed Ahmad Thakur, the president of the JKFA. “In 2018, we were recognised for grassroots development by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). Nadiya has done a wonderful job over the past several years, and the JKFA would extend its support to her. Also, it’s great to see a girl like Nadiya making strides in football.”
Nadiya hopes her wards will bring laurels to a region that has witnessed extreme unrest for several decades. To do that, she has had to venture outside her comfort zone. “I learned nuances of the game when I coached Under-13 boys in Mumbai during 2018,” she said. “Besides that, I coached at Haryana’s Alakhpura Football Club, which included Under-13, Under-15, Under-17 and Under-19 boys, and girls.”
She has come a long way since her first big break, during an Under-19 game at the Maulana Azad Ground in Jammu. She scored the only goal in the final stages of the game to earn her place in the spotlight. “In the first two matches, I didn’t get a chance,” she reminisced. “In the third game, I made my entry when only 10 minutes remained. By the grace of God, in those final moments, I was able to score a goal and lead my team to victory against Punjab. I was delighted, and so was everyone else.”
In 2016-17, Nadiya completed the CAT 5 course for referees, which saw her officiating 55 matches for a paltry fee of 50 rupees ($0.6) a game.
Two years ago, she was named head coach for the Lone Star Football Club’s women’s team. She also assisted with coaching duties on the men’s side for I-League preparations.
In March last year, just before the pandemic started sweeping through India, Nadiya completed her International Professional Scouting Organisation (IPSO) course. “I believe in dignity and respect, and we are all accountable in one way or another for the betterment of the sport,” she says. “We should respect each other's values to make progress as a society, and I believe I am doing my bit.”
At her JJ7 academy in Rambagh, she trains more than four dozen students, including girls from different age groups. She aims to begin free training for aspiring youngsters whose parents cannot afford the course.
Given her commitment to the sport, Nadiya has become a trailblazer for other female athletes in the region.
“The best thing about Nadiya is her commitment towards football and the way she puts in the hard yards by nursing her wards,” said Nadiya’s student Ruqaya, who was enrolled in her academy between 2017-18. “Nadiya provided us with equipments and it was because of her that I participated in the Indian Women’s League (IWL).”
Ifham, 20, who represents the State Football Academy (SFA) said, “She has worked hard to shape our careers. Her method of coaching is to treat boys and girls as equals"
Nadiya's journey as a player is not over. She led the Jammu and Kashmir women’s team in the 2018 nationals and was recently picked by Bengaluru based Parikrma Football Club as a striker.
Like many across, Nadiya lives her dreams on the pitch. It has been both her anchor and a shot at liberation. Whatever fate has in store for this brave young woman, her contribution in these times of distress won’t be forgotten.