Being a woman in a predominantly man’s domain is never easy, though things are slowly becoming better and easier through better exposure and support. And yet it will take a long time before we see any kind of true balance between the sexes (I’m referring to equal opportunity rather than equality as many use it). Football is one such area, especially in countries like ours. This makes achievements by Indian female players’ matters of special pride.
Tanvie Hans, who is currently a player for Fulham Ladies in the United Kingdom, is one fine example. A sporty, naturally athletic girl since she was very young, Tanvie played all the sports she could – first in the park behind her house with her older brother and his friends (mostly boys) and later at school. It took a few years before she saw the boys in her class play football for the first time though. But it clearly made an impact on the 2nd or 3rd grader – “I guess I knew it was my favourite sport from the moment I first kicked a ball.”
Fate works in mysterious ways. Tanvie was a student at Vasant Valley School, the first school in Delhi to start a girl’s football team. This meant that she was introduced to competitive football at a very young age. A large part of this Vasant Valley team, including Tanvie, formed the first Delhi U14 team in 2004, and though they faced heavy, double-digit losses due to their lack of experience, it opened their eyes to the existence of a higher standard and a larger platform of the beautiful game. Tanvie credits this first experience at the national level as spurring her on to better herself, a path that wasn’t exactly straightforward.
“I just simply tried to play as often as I could … But this was a big struggle due to lack of opportunities, lack of tournaments and as a result of that a lack of ‘real match experience’ as a female player in India.”
Since her early days as a youth footballer for the school, college and university teams, Tanvie does acknowledge a big shift in the football scenario in India. A shift for the better with the set-up of the ISL (Indian Super League) where the sport can finally be considered as a serious potential career. There has been a shift from a majority of loyalties directed towards foreign teams to more attention for local goings-on. This means that there is more money coming in and hence better and more facilities available, more opportunities and an overall improvement in the standard of football. Many have opined that football might soon compete with cricket for the most played and favoured sport in the country (though this writer believes that this, if it happens, is a paradigm shift which will take much more time). It is promising news for a developing nation like ours, but it has to be said that there is a slower rate of progress for the women than the men.
“This development caters well for the men, but not as much for the women, who still suffer limited opportunities and even lack of a national level league system. That said there definitely has been an improvement and I can see this so obviously when I go back to India every 6 months. There was a time when the pool of female players in India was so small that everyone knew everyone and it was usually the same players that were selected for the teams. However now whenever I go back and visit my club/state team, I hardly know more than 5 girls in the whole squad which clearly means that interest has grown amongst the girls and younger talent is coming through. There are more opportunities starting from the school level now, moving up to the senior state level. This makes me really happy. I do hope however, a professional league is set-up soon, as I truly believe the women’s team can put Indian football on the world map!”
But this is now. Back then, though Tanvie continued to play for the Delhi state team at various age categories (she attended college at Jesus and Mary College with the best women’s football team under Delhi University), their competitive seasons lasted only for 2-3 months at the most; nowhere near the amount of practice and playing time that an aspiring professional or even semi-professional footballer requires. So she played with boys and a handful of girls at an academy near her house run by Chhibber Sir (her coach since 2006/7). This didn’t really give her more ‘real match experience’ especially with girls, but it kept her fit and in touch with the game.
In 2011-12, Tanvie moved to England to study for an MSc in International Management at Exeter University. Used to being one of the better players while in India, she took a couple of weeks to progress from the second team to the first team at Exeter but immediately loved the football scene there – “it was quite a positive challenge for me … I really loved the level of the game, as well as the facilities and educated coaching.” She wasn’t to know that this was already preparing her for the next step in her career. As a British passport holder (her mother was born there), Tanvie has struggled with her ineligibility for the Indian women’s team, despite being called up for the U19 camp in 2008.
“Ever since then I’ve been waiting for the law to change (as surrendering my British passport is not a practical option) or at least for a proper women’s league to start in India, but neither of the two has happened as yet. Which is why I came here (England) in 2013 to try my luck here and continue growing as a player as much as possible.”
This decision was made easy by her first-hand experience of the scenario in the United Kingdom during her Masters, and June 2013 saw her at the open trials of a few clubs where she was successful at 2 of the 3 trials she faced. Tottenham Ladies were the first team she played for; over the course of 2 seasons, she played for their reserve and development team respectively.
When asked what some of the biggest challenges she has faced over the course of 3 odd years in the UK are, Tanvie points to ‘poor decision making’ and ‘lack of match experience’. During the few months she trained in India under Chhibber Sir and a friend to prepare for the club trials, the naturally right-footed player had worked on her stamina, ball control, shooting ability and such, and she was athletically and technically very strong and fast. But due to the aforementioned lack of match playing opportunities back in India, Tanvie struggled with when to pass, when to dribble, when or how to hold onto the ball. She was training with players who had been specially groomed to play at that level, mentally and instinctively, with a match every week since the age of 10. There was a lot of catching-up to do and that acted as a big hurdle for her promotion to the first team at Tottenham. But all credit to her, Tanvie stuck through it and came out stronger.
“This did challenge my confidence a lot, but I stuck through for 2 seasons, and I performed fairly well, having scored a few goals and providing a few assists through the seasons. I did of course develop a lot as a player (and person) through the experiences.”
Now of course she is at Fulham Ladies where she plays for the 1st team. Though most of her experience is on the right wing, she can (and rather enjoys) playing on the left wing, and also relishes the creativity involved when she slots in at no. 10 as the playmaker, a position she says she needs more experience in. This versatility and ability to adapt has stood her in good stead – the Messi and Carli Lloyd fan wasn’t deterred by the challenge of playing in the lower leagues with a new team like Fulham, instead wanting to be a small part in the history of the club and do her bit for their eventual progression, which she trusts will happen soon.
“… what drew me to them was their professional set-up, the warm chemistry, and that the quality of the game and talent level in the squad is not far apart from the teams playing higher up.”
A lot of signs, turning points or significant moments in our lives are things we realise in retrospect. Tanvie was 12 years old when Bend it like Beckham was released. It was the movie that inspired her to “play more seriously and do something big in football”. Back then, when there were fewer opportunities even for men, she didn’t know what that big thing was going to be, but she remembers walking out from that movie the first time with a tangible change in her; unaware that a year after she started playing for Tottenham, Gurinder Chadha would get in touch with her through a common relative! An interesting piece of trivia at this point is that Tanvie’s grandmother had met Chadha at some event years ago and told her what a big fan her granddaughter was of the film. The director was kind enough to write a note for the aspiring footballer. That note was the first thing she had hung on the wall of her room when she moved to London before her trials, for inspiration and motivation. So it was an excited Tanvie who agreed to be the face (quite literally!) for the Bend it like Beckham musical adverts. She also got to train the actresses and audition them in football. It is quite fitting that she is the poster girl in London for the musical based on the very movie that had inspired her at the age of 12 back in India.
“When my family were in London, they saw the musical. I especially remember, they had just returned from the musical, and we were at a restaurant, where they were talking proudly about the whole experience with an uncle and aunt, and just then a bus rolled up near our window with the Bend it Like Beckham musical poster and me on it. And I’ll never forget, Dad looked at me at that moment, and he had tears in his eyes.”
In her free time, Tanvie enjoys watching movies (Bollywood and Hollywood), writing poetry (you can follow her on Instagram: @taanspoetry), spending time with family and friends … not to forget any and every sporting activity you can think of! Since being in England, she has also been able to experience a great amount of attention and appreciation; being nominated for an award in the Asian Football Awards (which her compatriot, Aditi Chauhan, who we will feature next, went on to win) at the iconic Wembley stadium has been a particular highlight, but as a Fulham Ladies player, Tanvie has also had a chance to inspire younger girls to take up the sport seriously through player appearances at some schools. This increasing adulation isn’t restricted strictly to the UK however. Tanvie talks about how younger players in India often approach her via social media and tell her how much they are inspired by her. Hearing them say that and that they would love to meet her and play with her is a very rewarding feeling for someone who didn’t have a female role-model to look up to growing up in India.
“… it’s nice to be able to provide that now (even if only for a handful of girls and boys). It is a big responsibility – and if anything, it only adds fuel to my drive!”
Her message for the girls? Engage in the sport as much as possible. She points to the example of Bembem Devi who has had a massive 20 years of contribution to the women’s national team and is now celebrated as a legend. The status of one’s ‘success’ depends almost entirely on one’s commitment and desire to move forward in the game, even if only within India.
“I think the notion is that if you play for a club abroad, you’ve made it as a player. Yes, as the leagues abroad are older and more established and it is a higher standard of football, this may be true, but looking outside of India isn’t the only options anymore. So I would recommend the young footballers in India to consider how lucky they are to be growing up in India at a time where football is soaring and growing rapidly (especially for men), and this is their chance to BE a part of the positive change that is taking place. This is a chance for them to be the Messi or Neymar of the ISL, and that is in fact a massive achievement now. So stay positive, keep working, because things are only looking up from here :)”
Tanvie will be returning to India in May after the end of the current season. She hopes to invest all her English experience and be a part of the change she has been waiting for in India. On behalf of the team here at Football Paradise and Gunners Town, I’d like to thank Tanvie for being kind enough to let me interview her, and wish her all the best for the future – we’ll definitely be following your exploits!
First published on Football Paradise