A strong determination that never let her dreams die has today given Rupanti Munda the chance to take part in the Homeless World Cup in Oslo.
Life isn’t necessarily fair, but surrendering to its unfair ways isn’t the way to go, for it’s not tough times that last — it’s tough people. Achieving victory over a lifetime of tribulations, this story of 21-year-old Rupanti is a classic example of just that.
Rupanti hails from Dhoti, a small tribal village in Jharkhand’s Latehar district that has witnessed tragic Naxal attacks for the past 20 years. Growing up, like many other girls around her, Rupanti faced the grave issues of child marriage, trafficking, and gender-based violence along with Naxal atrocities. What made it worse was the fact that the Naxal threat deterred support groups from coming forward to work on developmental activities in the region. But all this is in no way deterred Rupanti; she always dared to dream big.
Rupanti had never heard of football until a teacher introduced their class to the game in the third standard. “My primary school teacher Bhagatnam Sir showed confidence in me that I could play this game. He gifted me my first pair of sports shoes because we played barefoot. I started playing Khasi (goat) football (a competition where the prizes are goats). I didn’t know that this game could be played at the national level. We played because we wanted to win goats,” she says.
Since her first experience, Rupanti continued playing, never knowing why.
“The game eventually grew close to my heart and I just wanted my skills to get better.” She would wake up at 4:30 am, complete all the household work, and rush to train at 7:30 am. “I would practise for two hours, come back home, and then go to school. This game became a part of my life.”
Rupanti’s perseverance and practice finally bore fruit when at the age of 14, Rupanti went for her first trial to get selected in the state team. She represented Jharkhand at the national-level games held in Uttarakhand in 2009. It was her first time leaving her village. After this opportunity she attended and trained at several other national camps.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t smooth sailing for too long after that. Rupanti had just begun her journey towards an unknown destiny when she lost her father, the sole earner in their family, when she was just 15 years of age.
She recalls, “Bapu was always very supportive. In spite of all his daily work, he accompanied me whenever I had a match. He used to pray for me before every match and told me never to think of failure.”
Her family’s financial condition took a major hit after this. But overcoming these hardships, they managed to gather funds and sent her to train in Kerala. Here, Rupanti was selected to represent India at the international level. However, disappointment shattered her dreams yet again — she couldn’t afford the trip.
Demotivated at every step, what completely broke Rupanti was when her elder brother was killed in a Naxalist attack in 2015, the same time her family was going through a severe financial crisis. “I was training in Jamshedpur at the time. I was so depressed that I left everything and rushed back home and thought that playing football wasn’t doing any good to my family. I quit playing football and started working as a farm labourer to make ends meet.”
After the death of her father and brother, the responsibility of seven family members fell on Rupanti’s young shoulders. These tragic incidents left her completely torn. “Every time I tried to leap high, my ambitions were shattered by destiny. I thought maybe I wasn’t cut out for this.” She convinced herself that football couldn’t help her family in any way. “I gave up on football, but something within me was dead. I wished to run to the field and chase my dreams again.”
She decided to get back to her only love. This spirit was rekindled when she was spotted by Rashmi Tiwari from Aahan Tribal Development Foundation, which works towards dismantling the machinery of trafficking in Jharkhand by making at-risk girls and women financially independent, self-reliant, and aware of their rights and privileges. They provide life skills, entrepreneurial skills, local employment opportunities, and mentoring and create engagements using art and sports to help tribal women realise their dreams.
“Because Rupanti had faced so much at such a tender age, the only thing she could think of was the daily survival of her family. Our team had to counsel her for a long time to boost her morale. Through our project, ‘Udaan,’ by 2016, Rupanti started to relive her dream of playing for India,” says Rashmi.
With motivation back in her stride, Rupanti went on to build a football team named ‘Aahan Braveheart Team’, where, in her role as captain, she trains tribal girls from various parts of Jharkhand who have been subjected to gender-based violence. Now, they too share her dream of representing India one day.
Rupanti dreams of coaching the Indian football team. “I want to bring girls like me from different parts of India and make them learn to dream big. If I ever have enough money, I will open a coaching centre nearer to my village so that girls like me can get trained, become confident, and they too can dream of playing for India. I want to make them understand that it might be tough but not impossible.”
This year, Rupanti is one of the few Indian players eligible to go to Oslo and participate in the 15th edition of the Homeless World Cup taking place in Oslo’s iconic Rådhusplassencity. With over 500 players representing more than 50 countries, it will bring together street football programmes from around the world.
To participate, Rupanti will require Rs 1.5 lakh. In light of this, Aahan Foundation has initiated a crowdfunding campaign to support Rupanti’s dreams and give wings to the dreams of many other girls like her.
Rupanti ends by saying, “If I can play for India at the Homeless World Cup this year, I can set an example that financial crisis can never be a hurdle in chasing your passion if the determination within you is strong.”