Until recently, Aditi Chauhan was living a quiet life in a small English town. There, in Loughborough, she combined her master’s degree in sports management by keeping goal for the university team. But if football was mistaken for a mere hobby, and Chauhan for a typical, run-of-the-mill international student, that wasn’t to last.
Now her phone is ringing off the hook, and it is the world’s media doing the calling. “It’s been incredible,” she told FIFA.com. “I’ve been in all the big newspapers back in India, loads here in the UK too, and I’ve been interviewed live on the BBC and on national television back home. I could never have expected anything like this. The response has been unbelievable on social media too, and I’m so grateful for all the love that’s been pouring in. I’m determined to make all these people proud.”
The reason for the interest, and for the outpouring of encouragement, is that Chauhan recently made a high-profile and historic move. The 22-year-old was never just an ordinary student, after all; she is an international footballer with her heart set on a professional career. And by signing and debuting for West Ham United Ladies, she became the first Indian international to play for an English league club.
“The English Premier League is very popular in India, and everyone knows who West Ham are,” she said. “I think that’s why this has generated such an enormous response back home and across social media. It’s a big deal for me too, of course. It’s fantastic to pull on the shirt and look down at that badge.”
And while West Ham are still establishing themselves in the women’s game, and currently operate in the country’s third tier, it is their modest position that enabled Chauhan to sign. As she explained: “I had trials with Millwall Ladies before coming here, but FA rules don’t allow you to play for a Super League club on a student visa. Fortunately, the goalkeeping coach at Millwall also works with West Ham and he pointed out that I would able to sign here without a problem.”
Overcoming such hurdles is nothing new to Chauhan. Indeed, the youngster’s determination to pursue her passion faced its toughest test long before she became a Hammer. “Taking the step to move here to study and play football wasn’t easy because it is not a typical career choice for women in India - I needed to do a lot of convincing with my parents. But once I told them how much I wanted to do this, they were won over and have been very supportive.
“It’s pretty tough to juggle everything right now as I’m still working on my final project for my degree and I also have a day job, so it’s been a challenge to keep that going alongside the football... and the interviews! But football is my passion and I would love to stay in England after my studies and play in the Super League. First, though, I will need a club or company to support my work visa, so I’ll need to play well and keep some clean sheets.”
World Cup dream
Ambitious and driven, Chauhan also stressed that her football dreams do not begin and end with starring in England’s top flight. “Playing for India in a World Cup is a big goal,” she said, excited even at the prospect. “But I’m realistic enough to see that we have a long way to go.”
There is always interest in when, or if, India – the world’s second-most populous nation, with 1.2 billion potential footballers – will begin realising its awesome potential in the beautiful game. And while other sports, most notably cricket, have traditionally held sway, Aditi sees encouraging signs. Her key concern is that the women’s game is given the same encouragement as its male equivalent.
“Things have improved a great deal in that respect, even since the days when I started playing,” she said. “There are lots more opportunities for girls to play football at school level, for example. But there are still many areas for improvement. The drop-out level when girls leave school is very high, and that's because they don’t see any opportunities in football. The lack of any kind of professional competition is a big factor. If anything is to come from the buzz that my move has generated, I hope it will be the Indian authorities getting behind a women’s league.
“The Indian Super League has attracted a lot of big international stars from men’s football, and there was some talk that a women’s league might follow. But nothing has materialised yet and I’m hoping something comes of it soon as it would make such a massive difference. Because of the English Premier League and the ISL, interest in football is growing all the time, and I’m sure that India will improve year after year on the international stage. We have such a huge population and great talent, so the potential is there. But I hope that improvement is seen in both men and women’s football, and any positive attention the women’s game gets can only help.”
Chauhan is certainly playing her part. With this eloquent and impressive role model inspiring Indian girls and showcasing the women’s game, one of football’s great sleeping giants may yet be roused.