When Jyoti Chouhan first came to Croatia to play football for the Dinamo Zagreb women’s team half a year ago, she had a significant language barrier to overcome.
Jyoti is originally from the town of Sardarpur in Madhya Pradesh’s Dhar district and spoke Hindi. Her teammates at Dinamo Zagreb, of course, mostly spoke Croatian.
“At first, I had no real idea what anyone was saying. But we used a translation dictionary and slowly figured out what were the words we commonly used,” says Jyoti. “I learned that ‘ball’ in Croatian is ‘ lopta’. When you want someone to shoot you say Pustiti lopta.”
There was no need for translation a week ago when Jyoti, who plays as a forward, put three into the net for Zagreb against ZNK Agram in the final game of Croatia’s Women’s First Football League season. Some words translate seamlessly, no matter where you are.
“ Hat-trick ko hat-trick hi bolte hain Croatian me (Hat-trick has the same meaning in Croatian too),” laughs Jyoti from her hostel room in Zagreb.
Her achievement won her plaudits from her teammates. It also put the 23-year-old into the history books as the first Indian woman to score a hat-trick in a top-flight European league.
The more she thinks about it though, the more unlikely it seems.
“I’m a girl from a small part of India. I’ve struggled a lot. My father passed away when I was young and my neighbours never supported me. I didn’t even have boots to play with when I started,” she says. “If you had told me 10 years ago that I’d be playing football in Europe and score a hat-trick here, I would never have believed you.”
That Jyoti is here is a testament to her self-belief and determination. Born the third of five daughters to a small-time businessman, Jyoti grew interested in football after watching boys play the sport in a field behind her house.
“I also wanted to play after that. But at that time, there weren’t any girls who played, so I wasn’t even sure whether girls could play the sport. I would just accompany my male cousins who played there,” she says.
A local coach, Shailesh Singh, said there was no reason girls couldn’t play the game – as long as they could form a team. That was enough motivation for Jyoti.
“I was only in fourth class at that time, but I was so interested in playing football that I even got my schoolmates to make a team,” she says.
Jyoti’s love for the sport persisted even in the face of multiple challenges. Her father passed away in a motorbike accident just a couple of years after she first kicked a football.
“That time was really hard. My father always encouraged me to play football, but after he passed away, there was no support. My neighbours discouraged me and said a girl shouldn’t be playing sports.
The only reason I kept playing was because my mother backed me. She would work in the fields to support our family, but she always told me I could play,” she says. While she had the backing of Pal and her mother, there were other difficulties to overcome. It wasn’t until she was in class 7 that Jyoti even had a pair of boots to call her own.
“When I started, I used to play barefoot. When I told my coach that I wanted a pair of boots, he told me I could only get them if I worked harder. I had to run more and train more and then maybe I’d get a pair,” she says.
Those were hard days, but Jyoti says they made her stronger.
“I got my first pair only when I was in class 5. There was a hostel for boys who played football and one day all of them got a pair. There was an extra pair that had got left over.
It was one size bigger for me – a size 5 – but they were special for me,” she says. “I took good care of them and used them until I was in class 7. Then I played really well at a tournament and the coach bought me another pair.”
That would remain her plan for many years – do well at football and get a pair of boots. As she progressed from district to state and then national level, there would be many such instances. With success, she slowly won over her naysayers. Her own ambitions also rose.
“I was really happy after I came back from playing my first national championship. Later when I got selected for the U-19 India camp, the people who discouraged me earlier told me I had earned a big name for the village.
After that I only wanted to do better. I wanted to play for bigger and better clubs. I got a chance to play for Kenkre and then Indian Women’s League champions – Gokulam FC. Gokulam is India’s best club, but I felt I can’t be satisfied with just this. I felt I have to do even more,” she says.
When she got the chance to play in front of coaches from Dinamo Zagreb women’s team at a tryout in Kolkata last year, Jyoti knew she had to make the most of her opportunity. After scoring a hat-trick at a practice game in Croatia last year, she as well as her teammate Soumya Guguloth were given a one-year contract.
Although the Dinamo Zagreb women’s team isn’t nearly as high-profile as its legendary men’s team, which produced players of the calibre of Luka Modric and Davor Suker, it’s fair to say this is the biggest platform Jyoti had ever played in.
While players in the Indian Women’s League have complained about having to play in poor conditions in Ahmedabad this season, Jyoti has gotten used to enjoying a little bit of stardom that comes by virtue of playing in the iconic blue jersey of Dinamo Zagreb.
“Dinamo Zagreb is a very big thing in Croatia. You can’t believe the crowds that come to watch matches here. Even though we aren’t a part of the men’s team, when we practise wearing our team jersey, everyone who sees us gets excited,” she says. “There are so many fans of Dinamo. They don’t charge us money if we go by tram. It’s a great feeling.”
And while she’s learned a few words in Croatian, she’s also taught her teammates some Hindi. “Now instead of wishing me good morning they say ‘ namaste’. And if they want my attention they say ‘aaja’. We are planning a party in a few days and I will be cooking some Indian food for them. We get along really well now,” she says.
She has adapted well to the nature of the game too. “When I first came to Croatia, I was really nervous. I saw all the girls here were bigger and stronger than me. I didn’t really know if I would be able to match up. In fact, the first time I was tackled I felt I would fall down and get injured. But after the first practice game where I scored a hat trick, I felt inke saath set ho sakti hu (I can play with these girls),” she says.
As she has continued to play, she feels she’s improved as well. And this isn’t just because of the standard of the league. “The difference (between India and Europe) is that there are no easy teams here. Every team is very strong,” she says. “In India there are some teams that are not as strong as the other. Everyone wants to play for a couple of clubs so the standard is not consistent. Here everyone gives 100 percent. Every team is tough.”
“There is a big difference in me compared to the player I was when I came. I have become physically stronger. When I am at home (in Sardarpur), there are many distractions. I don’t always eat well. Here my focus is entirely on football. That has helped me improve a lot. Now even the girls here tell me how strong I am and how hard I kick the ball,” says Jyoti.
Having scored 10 goals for her club in 18 matches and helped them to third place in the Croatian Women’s First Football League, she’s hopeful of extending her contract with Zagreb. She also hopes the experience will help her earn a chance to play for India too.
“I’ve learned a lot in Croatia. I hope that the skills I’ve picked up here will give me a chance to improve in India also. If I can score a hat trick in Europe, then I should be able to score hat-tricks in India too. I have been part of two India national camps but I’ve never made the final team. That is my ultimate goal,” she says.
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