It was the first round of the U-19 Women’s AFC Cup qualifiers in 2012. The Indian team was up against host Malaysia. Out in the Indian dugout sat a talented 16-year-old winger who was picked on the back of her impressive performances in the MDFA league that year. She remained on the bench for this round and even for the next one against Vietnam.
She had been there before; getting ever so close to playing for her country yet still somehow ending up sitting out. Her first national call came a couple months after she had lost her father. “I had not been training for a couple of months and was unfit. I wasn’t even going to the national camp but my mother pushed me into it in the hope that it would be a distraction from everything that was happening at home.” Abeer Salim Arsiwala showcased outright courage and self-belief to make it to that camp but fell marginally short of playing football for her country.
It has been five long summers since those chain events and Abeer is now only playing competitive football for Future Stars FC but more importantly, she is now a qualified personal trainer and conditioning coach helping others to get fit. “Every passing day, the thought crosses my mind and I think what if circumstances could have been different. But sometimes, when you are in that moment and you have given your best even though it was not enough, you’re happy that you tried,” says the 21-year-old.
Football was a gift that was passed on to Abeer by her elder brothers. “By the time I was ten, because I was constantly playing with my brothers, I had picked up a few things from them. Now, you do have grassroots programmes for girls but back then if you just hit the ball using the inside of your foot instead of your toe, you were considered to be good!” she chuckles.
Abeer’s transformation from just another football enthusiast to a strong and technically sound footballer began when her school finally had a girls' football team. “I just was 13 when I started playing club football because there is no such age bar there. Purshottam Sir was my coach at the school and he ensured that my basics were correct.”.”
Playing for the Sunil Pujari Football Academy (SPFA), Abeer along with her young teammates locked horns with much stronger and experienced women. The outcome was predictable; they lost. Not just once but they constantly finished second. “We were too young to understand what frustration was but I can tell you it was heartbreaking and it was immense sadness.”
Winning is a celebration but losing, if rightly reflected on, can be an institution. Coach Hemant at the SPFA knew that Abeer and the rest of the girls will have to go through the learning curve and he supported them through that phase. “In a couple of years’ time, we started giving back to our opponents because we were better prepared and more experienced about playing competitive football.”
The seven years Abeer spent at the SPFA changed her as a footballer. It not only helped her to acquire and sharpen her skills but also gave her the mental strength to fight fire with fire. “At 21, I know for a fact that by the time I get to the highest level and make money as a footballer, my playing career would be over. So, I have to be practical.”
Being practical is not about giving up on your dreams. Rather, it is about accepting the situation and making an honest and committed effort to make the best of your abilities. Abeer joined as an intern to Manuel D’Souza, a personal trainer and conditioning coach himself, in April last year. In less than a years’ time, she has not only gained valuable practical experience but also finished a personal training course under the American Council on Exercise. She now has clients of her own. “One of my clients is a 41-year-old woman who is a mother of two kids. Initially, she just wanted to lose weight but once she achieved her goal, she now wants to incorporate fitness into her lifestyle and we are working on it.”
Abeer’s family has been her constant support system. “Both of my elder brothers have been there for me always. I am very close to my mom as well and she has been a constant pillar of support in my life. She tells me not to be too practical but follow my heart and play football because she knows how much I love it. But there is only so much she can do, right? I want her to relax now.