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Aditi Chauhan & football: A story of chance, grit and excellence

Aditi Chauhan narrates to GOAL how destiny played its part in her being a footballer…

Indian women’s national team goalkeeper Aditi Chauhan was into sports right from her childhood. But football? No, certainly not. 

Rather, she was more engrossed in playing basketball in school. She had even tried her hands in discus, javelin, and shot put but had hardly played football. Hence her entry into the sport was fortuitous, to say the least. 

“My sports teacher in school informed that there is a state trial going on for U19 girls. He suggested that I should go and appear for the trials. That wasn’t really my choice,” revealed the India international to Goal. 

However, after a lot of cajoling, like an obedient student, she appeared for the trials. And that was the turning point in her life. With her selection into the team, her tryst with football began that would define the course for the rest of her life. 

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“Honestly, I never really thought of playing football professionally in that sense. It is still not professional in India. It was just following the passion kind of thing.”

But like most budding footballers, she wanted to be a striker. Strikers attract the king’s share of attraction, goals are celebrated while saves are often brushed under the carpet. Iker Casillas summed it up perfectly when he said,” Being a good person is like being a goalkeeper. No matter how many goals you save, some people will only remember the ones you missed.”

Nonetheless, Chauhan soon understood that she would do better with a role reversal. So instead of scoring goals, she started focusing on saving them. 

“I have tried playing in various positions in the outfield but I realised that the skills and attributes that I have can be best used as a keeper. Hence I decided to become a keeper,” she explained. 

With the gloves on, she started to grow as a player. Moreover, her lessons in basketball came to her aid. 

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“When you play different sports, you pick up certain attributes which you don’t really realise at that time but later on, you get to utilise those. Playing basketball helped me to have a better hand-eye co-ordination along with a better grip. That helped me as a goalkeeper.”

However, the absence of competitive minutes was hindering her progress. 

“Right from the start, the biggest challenge was to get a proper training set up to play football and get competitive action. I have had years when we did not get any tournament in the year.  I learnt most of my basics in the national camps. This has to change as you learn the most in your formative years.”

She even decided to get back to academics and moved to England to pursue M.Sc in Sports Management from Loughborough University. To earn a few shillings she worked as a student ambassador and in the free time, she started appearing for trials. 

She was picked up by Milwall FC but since she was on a student visa, she was not eligible to sign a professional contract. According to the rules of the FA — English football’s governing body — a player on a student visa cannot join a club in the top two tiers of women’s football.

Hence, she appeared for trials with third division outfit West Ham United Ladies and got selected. She became the first choice keeper and spent three years in two stints with the Hammers. 

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But like most professional players it has not been a smooth ride. She suffered an ACL injury while playing for West Ham which kept her out for almost a whole season. 

“The journey has been full of challenges. Injuries have played a major part. I got an ACL injury and I had to be away for nine months. I was playing for West Ham back then. Having that injury at that point was a huge setback. But I moved on from that. You don’t have much time to think about your mistakes. Then I came back and became the captain of India and till now I have retained the number one position. 

“Apart from injuries, your performance also goes up and down when you are playing at this elite level. It challenges you mentally. But athletes are stronger than they think they are. I think in the Hero Gold Cup, I could have done a lot better. That was a very low period. We did not play to the expectations. But that instilled in us a zeal to come back stronger.”

After the disappointment in Gold Cup, the Indian team won the SAFF Championship which was a sort of redemption for the team and especially for the keeper. She acknowledged that the rough patch of form forced her to introspect and was a learning period that would help her bring out the best once again. 

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“I analysed my performance. Went through the videos. I worked on myself. I prepared myself better mentally. It was a huge learning curve for me. More than anyone else, I had to prove it to myself that I had it in me. 

“We lost to Nepal in the Gold Cup, our arch-rival in the South Asian region. But we defeated them in SAFF. So going to their home ground and retaining the trophy was very important for us. I am very proud of the comeback.”

The 28-year-old has long been the number one choice for the Indian national team. But she has never taken the spot for granted. For her, it has always been about earning the right to play. With the AFC Asian Cup coming up in less than 12 months’ time, Chauhan is in no mood to slip up.

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