Girls Soccer Team from India in the California Bay Area
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Transporting a youth soccer team from the poorest slums of Mumbai, India, to the Bay Area has its challenges. Passports, for starters.
A few months ago, the girls of the Magic Bus soccer team barely existed on paper. No IDs, no birth certificates, no addresses recognized by the government. Some learned during the passport process that they had different last names.
Flash forward to this week, when those same girls found themselves palling around with U.S. women's soccer stars Julie Foudy and Aly Wagner on the lush playing surfaces of Saint Mary's College and Stanford University.
Many of the dozen players had never left their communities, let alone India. When they booted a ball across the manicured grass fields of a college campus, it marked the first time they'd played on anything like it.
The biggest culture shock was realizing that it was OK.
"In the community we come from, we're not used to hearing we can do whatever you want. And that gets frustrating sometimes," said right defender Sheetal Pal, 16. "But when we came here, the message every day was: 'You can do whatever you put your mind to.'
"It was nice to see other people have confidence in you."
The players are here as part of a nonprofit mission to expose Indian girls to an alternate reality. It's a cross between "Slumdog Millionaire" and "Bend It Like Beckham" (with a dash of "Field of Dreams" -- the girls took in a Giants game on Wednesday).
home, these girls, ages 14 to 17, live in cramped quarters, often without clean water. As soccer players, they are often told they bring shame to their families. An unmarried teenage girl in shorts is an affront to traditional culture.
Matthew Spacie, a former India rugby player, founded the Magic Bus organization in Mumbai in 1999. His goal was to improve the circumstances for the country's poor through sport -- with an emphasis on gender equity. "In India, we're working against hundreds of thousands of years of preconceptions about what a girl should be allowed to do," he said.
Taking an entire team to the United States is a first. Rahul Brahmbhatt, the general manager for Magic Bus USA, teamed with the Julie Foudy Leadership Camp, the soccer training ground founded by the former Stanford player who later spent a decade captaining the U.S. women's team.
The girls arrived at Foudy's camp at Saint Mary's about two weeks ago where they met Wagner, who served as a coach. Wagner recalls how the girls clung only to one another and seemed almost too shy to speak. "They were subdued, almost like they were wondering what they got themselves into," Wagner said.
Foudy and other coaches split the Mumbai girls up in drills so that they would be forced to mingle with the 100 or so U.S. players at the camp. "And within a few days," Foudy said, "they had the American kids doing Hindi cheers."
As their trip winds down -- the girls leave town Saturday -- that shyness is long gone. A handful of the best English speakers took the stage at the end of Foudy's camp and fielded questions from the U.S. players about life back home. A hand shot up from the back of the room: "What's a slum?"
The Mumbai girls took turns detailing their densely populated neighborhoods where dwellings could be bulldozed at any minute by the government. They told of the mafias that control water and electricity. They told of waking up as early as 4:30 to handle the washing and cleaning before going to work. Before going to school. Before going back to work. Before helping cook dinner for the household. Before doing homework. Before going to bed about 9.
Soccer is a luxury reserved for a few hours on Saturdays and Sundays. It's rare for girls to play -- and even rarer for them to be allowed to play past puberty.
Some of the U.S. girls cried when they heard the stories. Wagner, the former star at San Jose's Presentation High and Santa Clara University, hasn't stopped thinking about it. She called her time with the Magic Bus team "one of the greatest experiences I've had, outside Olympic medals and national championships. Just to hear their perspective and then by the end to see the smiles on their faces was incredible."
Not all of the visit was so deep and serious. The girls giggled their way through a trip to AT&T Park on Wednesday, where the Giants provided them with free tickets to a game against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
After working their way through the turnstiles with trepidation (some of them tried to scoot around it before being admonished by a security guard) the girls caught on quickly to U.S. baseball customs. They cheered for Pablo Sandoval's run-scoring single in the third inning, chomped on cotton candy in the fifth and gyrated to "Bust a Move" in the sixth.
But the conversation kept drifting back to Foudy and her camp. Accustomed to India's caste system, where there are distinct lines between the rich and the poor, they remained stunned by such a hands-on approach from one of soccer's most recognizable names.
"Julie has played at the highest level in the world, but she was always asking how we were doing," said Pal, 16, the defensive player who helps her parents run a snack shop back home. "Julie wanted to know how we were feeling. She is such a big woman, but she treated us with respect."
The only thing that could rival Foudy on this trip: Amber India. The girls made a trip to the popular Santana Row restaurant and reveled in the familiar sting of a spicy dish. The girls consider U.S. cuisine so bland that many have been toting bottles of hot sauce around in their gym bags. They store it in the bottle holders, as if it were Gatorade.
The girls also made stops in Oakland, where they participated in a Soccer Without Borders game. And on Thursday they visited the Bay Area Women's Sports Initiative.
As the girls head for home, they pack a valuable souvenir: Validation.
"It's about leadership qualities -- how to communicate with other people. How to be confident," defender Gulafsha Ansari, 15, said. "It's about how to stand up."