A new chapter ahead for Dalima

Dalima Chhibber

Bengaluru: Dalima Chhibber remembers the night before her debut for the national team, back in 2016 in the South Asian Games against Maldives.

As was the practice at that time, the line-up was revealed to her and she knew she was in the starting 11. A fresh faced 18-year-old making the move from age group football to senior level, two-weeks old in the senior camp, was set to walk onto the field as a full-fledged international the next day.

She remembers wanting to speak to someone about the cornucopia of emotions she was feeling - pride, happiness, nerves. But there was to be no conversation that day. In a way, that solidified her desire to pursue sports psychology.

"I did psychology graduation in Delhi while I was travelling and playing with the national team. I've always wanted to do sports psychology - right from when I was in my 11th standard," Dalima told DH.

"I really wanted to be part of the senior team but I'd never met the players and didn't know what it was like. That time, I was nervous and needed to talk to someone. That experience, I realised how important it is for a sportsperson. I walked in with confidence, I couldn't really adapt to the game as I should have, I couldn't control my nerves."

Three years and over three dozen appearances later, Dalima has made the call to follow up on her plans, to help such athletes whose world was about to change.

The 21-year-old, whose versatility and attributes have seen her move seamlessly from defence to midfield and vice versa, announced on Twitter that she will be putting her budding international career on the back burner as she heads to University of Manitoba on a full-scholarship.

There, the Delhi-born, who last played for India in the 3-3 draw against Myanmar in the Olympic Qualifier second round in April, will turn out for her college which plays top division university football under a coach Vanessa Martinez Lagunas, a former assistant coach of the U-17 German women's team with experience in the US and Germany.

But, she corrects when asked about this decision, tough as it was, saying she's not really taking a break.

"I'm not totally on a break, because I will come back and play whenever I have time. Right now I'm travelling for my preseason in Canada and my season starts in September. It's not that I will come back after two years," she stresses.

"I can see a future as a woman footballer but I don't really see sustaining myself just through football. That's why it was important to have a back-up and be able to work simultaneously in the future."

The Indian Women's League has helped in that regard. But that's hardly a full-time contract, and money remains in short supply in the women's game.

"It's a tough call when you have to stop playing for your nation but somewhere, when you have to improve and step up your game, you need to test yourself with better players. It's going to help me and hopefully I can come back and contribute to the national team. It was a tough decision but it had to be made to bring about that change."

Dalima has never been one to shy from fighting for change. The former Gokulam Kerala FC star played the sport for the first time when she took to the field with the boys training under her father as a kid. Her first major tournament was an U-19 national level one, as an 11 year old. And despite her relatively young age, she has used her platform to be vocal about sexism and issues women footballers face.

"People still say 'what do you think is the future for women's football?' or 'we don't think women footballers can do it'. That is why I've been pretty outspoken about this," she remarks.

"So every time I play, its with the intention of proving to everyone that women can play football. In the past opportunities for women's football was far less. Now that is changing. IWL helps a lot of youngsters get a platform to perform and its a national league. Opportunities are coming in now, because we had few good results."

Unsurprisingly, Dalima, whose mother was the first ever female goalscorer for Delhi University, has been one of the loci of the change.

A jack-of-all-trades, she was the MVP during the 2019 SAFF tournament - which India won - and scored a 40-yard freekick in the final against Nepal - a knack for which she had showcased in the IWL the season prior - that was probably the most viral piece of clip in Indian women's football history.

"That went really viral," she admits with a note of awe, nearly four months later. "I was so proud that people were seeing me as a footballer, after all the hard work. People used to say being a girl how far will you go? This was satisfying.

"The women's team in general got a lot of popularity and that's what is important because we have never been in the limelight but after that and the SAFF win, it has changed. When I started there was hardly any games happening but now in Delhi every school has a team. Now, children and women have football all round the year. Even in IWL, there were more teams and matches this year and more players playing as well.

"It's developing," she says. As she gets ready to cross the oceans in the next couple of weeks, her words are filled with hope.

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