Dust rises up in clouds from the football pitch as two teams of jerseyed boys stand in straight lines, facing each other. Separated by a referee with a whistle on his lips, the boys are ready for the 90-minute game, which is part of their annual school soccer cup. However, before the whistle goes off, an unexpected player positions herself between the two teams and proceeds to steal the show.
In the viral video described above, 17-year-old Hadiya Hakeem can be seen juggling the ball effortlessly and tossing it from one foot to the other.
Wearing the school uniform of salwar-kameez and a hijab around her head, Hadiya kicks the ball high up and expertly stalls it as it lands smack on her back, all the while getting loud screams and shout-outs from her football crazy classmates.
On January 7, the Class 12 student approached her school principal to ask if she could display her freestyle skills at the annual soccer cup in her school – a tournament for boys only.
“I was encouraged by the boys in my class to ask the principal if I could show my freestyle skills. Thankfully, they allowed and I could perform for the soccer cup,” Hadiya tells TNM.
After her video became a monster hit on social media, Hadiya has earned the respect of the football obsessed boys in her school. Several local football clubs too have now invited her to inaugurate their matches.
Yet, there remains a hint of disappointment in her voice as she speaks. “I don’t want to be reduced to a performer. I can actually play football. But I do not get to play anymore as girls here don’t play the game. No one trains girls also," she tells TNM.
A student of the Chennamangallur Higher Secondary School in Kozhikode for the last 3 years, Hadiya had to stop playing football ever since she returned from Doha in 2017.
“Kerala loves football. But if you look around here, there are only men playing the game. Local soccer clubs are all men’s clubs. In school, boys take over the field during physical education period, while the girls play badminton or sit idly waiting for the class bell to go off,” she says.
Back in Doha, she was trained as a mid-fielder in her school from Class 7 onwards. When she was in Class 9, her family returned to Kerala, just as she was preparing to get selected for the high school girls’ team.
According to Hadiya, the move put a sudden end to her goal of becoming a professional football player, as the family could not identify a single girls club or coaching class in their neighbourhood in Mukkam.
“My entire family is into football. We love Barcelona (club) and Spain (team). My dad plays football. My older brother has now received a D licence from the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and plans to become a coach after completing his Architecture degree. My younger brother too plays football. I dreamt of being a professional player myself, but now it seems unlikely as there are no opportunities in the neighbourhood and I can’t travel as I am in Class 12,” she says.
The lack of opportunity for girls in Mukkam is precisely what drove Hadiya to give up playing the sport altogether and embrace freestyle soccer instead.
“I used to play with my cousins on the terrace. But I knew that I would not be able to do so regularly. So I stopped playing the game and began picking up freestyle tricks from YouTube and Instagram videos,” Hadiya says.
By picking up several tricks which she posts on her Instagram account, the 17-year-old has stunned the state’s football crazy men. However, she makes it clear that her videos aren’t just for entertainment, but convey a message to schools in the state.
“In our schools, gender divide on the field is evident. My hope is that teachers take the effort to impart grassroots level training for young girls in different sports. It is the school’s responsibility to initiate us into sports, train us, and create a space and opportunity for us. They need to help us, girls, prove that football (and any other sport for that matter) is not the sole fiefdom of boys,” Hadiya says.