Though she wasn’t physically carrying the flag at yesterday’s Homeless World Cup opening ceremony Team India Women’s coach, Aruna Natarajan, is very much flying the banner for women in her home country.
“I’m a big soccer fan – I’ve been keen on football for the longest time – and I’m very interested in communication, social sciences and transformation,” she says, “so this is a very interesting intersection of all my interests!”
Involved behind the scenes in the sport for four years, Aruna initially worked as a programme manager for Slum Soccer India, who promote development through the medium of football. Her focus there was on monitoring and evaluation before she immersed herself in the women’s programme, “Because getting girls involved in sport – especially a contact sport like football in India is very difficult, particularly amongst the low income communities who are very reluctant.”
From small beginnings Aruna helped develop extensive outreach programmes, getting women coaches involved so that parents were more forthcoming about letting their children take part in the sport.
“Once that happens, it’s a process,” she states. “We get more girls involved, it’s something they get excited about, and more girls are attracted to become involved.
“We’re building our programme to ensure girls are not excluded – not just in sport but in many other spheres of society. We try to have games with the boys and talk about exclusion. The first step in ensuring inclusion is to recognise that there is a problem. So we start by getting the girls and boys together.
“It’s very niche just now but slowly in India people are starting to recognise that change in this organic manner is good.”
Aruna, whose team are ranked fifth in this year’s tournament, is proud of the “huge spike of interest back home” in her players around this tournament.
“People recognise the players now and approach them. Now the public attend matches because they know what this is all about – local matches attract about 700, a moving crowd – and Homeless World Cup is a huge part of that.”
As a leader in her field, then, has Aruna’s enthusiasm grown from her own playing experience?
“No, I’ve never played,” she laughs. “I have a kickabout occasionally but only when no-one is watching!”
Words by Isobel Irvine - email@example.com