Women’s football loses a path-breaker as former player, coach and activist Fouzia Mampetta passes away

After four years of a stoic battle with cancer, Fouzia Mampetta, the pioneer of women’s football in Kerala, breathed her last at her house in Vellimadukunnu, a sleepy suburb of Kozhikode. She was 49, and leaves behind a multi-layered legacy as a player, pathbreaker and coach.

Fouzia was a stereotype-buster in every sense of the word. She began playing football at a time when girls from her community were often discouraged to study beyond the 10th grade, let alone choose a career in sports, more so one as physically demanding as football. Though northern Malabar has always been passionate about football, it was not tolerant enough to encourage women to embrace the game.

But Fouzia, growing up in Malappuram’s Tirur, could not resist the allure of the Beautiful Game. Wearing tattered boots forsaken by her brothers, she would hang around in the precincts of local grounds, hoping for someone to invite her for a kick or two. “But no one was willing to teach football to a girl. They were not scared of me, but did not want me. But my father, who was in the Gulf, always encouraged me. During a vacation, he convinced my brothers and cousins to teach me football and let me to the ground,” she once recounted her story to a local television channel and website, Dool News.

Fouzia Mampetta was 49.

But on one condition — that she would not be an outfield player, but a goalkeeper, and not allowed to step outside the confines of the six-yard box. She should also wrap her head in a hijab and wear tracksuits that covered the entire body. It hardly mattered to Fouzia. “I was on the field at last. I knew from thereon, no one could stop me from playing the game,” she said.

Just the beginning

No one could. Despite strict regulations and prohibitions, she would evade the glare of her conservative family and attend trials in Kozhikode. At 16, she was picked in the junior state team that participated in the All-India Junior Football Championship in Kolkata. Her shot-stopping skills and readiness to perform the stopper’s duties, striding out of her six-yard confinement to thwart rival forays, won admiration and attention. Fouzia was adjudged the best goalkeeper, as she took Kerala to a runners-up finish. And for the next nine years, she was a regular in Kerala women’s football teams, seamlessly graduating from the junior to senior grades.

But rare as football fixtures were, Fouzia had ample time to pick new passions. She learnt judo, handball, weightlifting and powerlifting too, and went on to win medals for the state. The story goes that she even attended hockey trials. None of these pursuits, though, would distract her from the love of her life, football.

Pioneering role

In 1996, though, she had to temporarily disconnect herself from the game after marriage, which shortly ended in a divorce. She found solace in football again and ventured into her storied coaching career. “There was neither encouragement nor infrastructure for women’s football. I wanted to change that,” Fouzia said.

The first step was to teach football in a women’s school. She found a job at the Nadakkavu Girls High School in Kozhikode, and in just two years made them district champions. Gradually, she made Kozhikode a powerhouse in women’s football. So much so that by 2003, four of her wards were in the Kerala team. Soon, she was appointed the assistant coach of the state women’s team, which finished third in the 2005 Senior National Championship and runners-up the next year. The same year, two of her students, VM Ashley and T Nikhila, got picked for the national team. Several more were to follow.

But Fouzia’s ambitions were far from satisfied. She realised that tangible progress could only take place if the sport is encouraged at the school level. She returned to the Nadakkavu School and began a lengthy quest to include women’s football into the National School Games fold. Repeatedly snubbed by various regimes, she finally succeeded in 2013. “The most important goal I have scored in my career,” she would say with characteristic humour.

Fighting till the end

It’s with similar imagery that she conveyed her medical condition to her students. “Cancer has started scoring goals into my goalpost, but I will take the game to the penalty shootout, till the final whistle is blown,” she told her beloved wards at the school a few months ago.

For most of them, she was more than a coach or mentor, a mother and an inspiration too. “She taught us to be brave, humble and fight till the very end. The values she had taught us will remain in us forever,” Theertha, one of her students, told Dool News.

In her lifetime, Fouzia never chased fame and limelight, a reason she remained largely anonymous even in Kerala. But she leaves behind a glittering legacy. As the pathbreaker of women’s football in northern Malabar.