Ludhiana: They say first impression is the last impression. Kashmiri footballer Afshan Ashiq learnt that the hard way as she struggles to overcome the image that thrust her into the limelight for the wrong reasons.
"I'm a goalkeeper, I just have a good throw," she says.
Back in December 2017, Afshan's photo had gone viral on social media and everything changed for her. "My life has not been the same after that, people know me now" - both the good and the bad.
A photo of Afshan - her face covered with a dupatta - throwing a stone at the Jammu and Kashmir police was shared wildly. She was labelled as a stone-pelter and her story became that of a 'stone-pelter-turned footballer'.
"I was labelled as a stone pelter-turned into footballer, but I have always been a footballer, that was just one day,” she told News18.com at the sidelines of Indian Women’s League, where she played for FC Kolhapur City.
“I shouted 'why are you calling me a stone-pelter, I am not that' and I was told 'you threw like a professional stone-pelter'. Media made that kind of odd narrative and I was like 'please remove that label'," she said.
Afshan said her protest was only against the local police and not the Army. "It happened in 2017. They (police) abused us, slapped my students. If they treat us like that, what do they expect from us?" Afshan asked.
Post the incident, Afshan had to tackle the media, the Jammu and Kashmir sports secretary and her family - and all of them had their own set of challenges.
Since her face was covered, Afshan didn't think people would know that it was she who threw the stones.
"After that incident, when I went for training, I thought nobody would know that it was me, but the sports secretary came and said 'you are famous on social media now'. I was like 'what did I do? I didn't do anything'. He was like 'give me five minutes, you will come to know what you did'.”
What gave her away was the dress she wore during the protest. She was still wearing that when she went for training.
“I had to accept. He said 'I'm with you, just talk to the media and tell them the truth. Just tell them what happened'. Everybody is thinking that there is no future of sports in Kashmir and I thought 'okay, I will talk'."
While the sports secretary was supportive, Afshan was grounded for a month after her father learnt about it.She missed out on a month of football and that left her restless during the entire period.
"After two months, my dad came to know about the incident and I was not allowed to leave home for one month. It was really bad and I used to beg to my mom and tell her that I'll just play for half an hour and come back but she said she couldn't do anything and I had to be at home. For one month I could not play football and it was really hard for me. Then one day I was having dinner with dad and he looked at me and said, 'why are you crying?' I was like 'you ask me to sit at home, what do I do'. He then allowed me to go out and I could play again."
Afshan is currently pursuing her playing career in Mumbai after giving her early years to coaching in her state. In the ongoing Indian Women's League (IWL), she was sidelined with an injury.
Afshan played two matches in the IWL before being sidelined with an injury. (Photo Credit: AIFF)
"I'm playing in Mumbai for PIFA and I'm playing for Kolhapur here. I was playing for J&K last year and before that I played for Mumbai in the qualifier. I was coaching in Kashmir but I want to pursue my playing career right now.”
"There are 10-12 teams in the Mumbai state league and the tournament goes on for a month. Apart from this league, I play 5-a-side and 7-a-side tournaments. Then there is this Roots Premier League happening there so we play three months for that too”.
She said her coach from J&K, Satpal Singh, had asked her to sign from Kolhapur.
“I told him that I'm injured but he told me to play for experience, so I played for two games but I couldn't after that. I want to play for India and this and the Nationals are the only ways to get selected for the national camp."
TRYST WITH COACHING
Just 24 years old, Afshan runs a club called Unique Football Girls in Srinagar where around 150 girls receive training. Before pursuing her playing career outside the state, she used to coach the girls there and that was a massive struggle in itself.
"My family is based in Srinagar but I go back home rarely now. Due to hartals I have to stay at home and I don't want that.”
"The girls over there (Srinagar) call me asking me to come back because I was the only one who used to coach them. They don't have a particular coach. I had my own club, Unique Football Girls, where I used to train 150 girls. I used to train them at the TRC Ground.”
"Right now one of my colleagues at Unique Football Girls, Masood, he is taking care of the girls. He is a C-License coach. I did my D-License too but then I pursued my playing career."
Afshan got into coaching on the advice of her coach who told her that there are no women coaches in Jammu and Kashmir. After talking to parents of some children interested in the sport, she decided to take it up.
"I wanted to play but my coach suggested that there rarely are women coaches in our state and I talked to parents and they wanted a woman to coach their girls. So that's why I shifted from playing to coaching so that we get a good girls' team,” she said.
Afshan herself played with boys when she was growing up and received formal coaching at Lonestar Kashmir first and later RKFC, which started in 2015. “I was the only one who used to play with boys,” she said.
Starting a club for girls was not easy as getting the nod for every little facility was a big hurdle
"I have had to fight with them so much for my girls. I wanted that if my girls train everyday, they should get also get to play in some tournaments in order to get experience but there were too many issues around it.”
“We have this mentality that girls can't play and I used to tell them (the J&K association) that give me a ground anywhere, I will train them and they used to say we can't give you an open ground.” After a lot of struggle, she managed to get the TRC ground from the government to train girls.
Afshan said she was thinking of going back home and begin working with the girls there again. She said there are many talented girls and all they need is game time and the experience of tournaments.
"When it comes to J&K, I feel very sad. At the junior nationals, we conceded a lot. My colleague, who is the coach, asked me to talk to the girls. The girls had been training for 15 days in the camp. In 15 days, you can't become a good football player. You need to train the entire year.”
She said that the J&K State Football Academy told her they would form a team for the girls but that never materialised. "I am thinking of going back home and starting something for the girls. There is one girl, Tanzeela. She is amazing. She always asks me about what to do next.”
Afshan rued the lack of facilities and coaches in Kashmir and said that hinders the growth of players and also depletes interest into the game for women overall.
"Pulwama and Pampore also produce players but there are no facilities for girls to play. They will practice the whole year but they won't play a game, so they won't know where they lack. Football has made sure many girls come out of the state to study so that they can play the game. Tanzeela is going to Baroda and she will play football there. There are 2-3 students of mine who play outside.”
"There aren't many coaches for women's football. I started my football education under Abdullah Dar but now he's also aged. Nadia Nighat, apart from me, also got a D license. We are the only two licensed women coaches from Jammu and Kashmir.”
"I have asked Real Kashmir, 'when are you starting a team?' I want to play for a team from my state," Afshan quipped.