Till a few years ago, Bishnupriya Mohanta, Runi Nayak and Jashoda Munda were like other orphans growing up in the dingy bylanes of Salia Sahi, the biggest slum of Bhubaneswar. Inmates of a home for street children in the slum, they had little access to education or passion for sports.
Today, girls of the same area are a part of the Indian National Women’s Football team and playing their way to ensure a better life. The road from Salia Sahi to the national team was replete with hardships but guiding them through the journey to glory was Nanda Kishore Patnaik, their coach.
Bishnupriya (19), Runi (19) and Jashoda (21) are not alone; there are several other football sensations living their dreams under the guidance of Patnaik, who is credited to have build Odisha women’s football team that won the Senior Women’s National Football Championship in 2011. These days, he is training 26 girls—a majority of them orphans from the shelter homes and destitutes in Odisha—at Nita Ambani Football Academy, for free. Apart from training the girls, he single-handedly looks after their diet and has enrolled them in schools and colleges to ensure good education for them.
“There was no women’s football team in Odisha till the then CM, Biju Patnaik, directed the sports department to form one in 1993. The responsibility fell on the then SAI football coach, Chandan Chanda, who approached me to prepare the team. Some girls were playing Kho Kho at Unit-2 Girls High School and we had to persuade them to play football. Initially, they refused but when they were told that they would be flown to Guwahati, all agreed. Trained in basics of football, they lost and returned,” he recalls.
The girls gave up on the game but Patnaik didn’t give up on them. He began training 16 girls at Kalinga Stadium and two years later, they took part in the Nationals at Haldia, West Bengal, and made it to the quarter finals after defeating Delhi and Haryana. “This was a morale booster for the girls. In 1997, two among them—Sradhanjali Samantray and Ranjita Mohanty—were selected in the National team as goal keepers,” recalls the coach. A decade after the Haldia match, the Odisha team won gold at the Women’s National Football Championship in Guwahati.
“It was then that I decided to set up a football academy in 2012 with `5 lakh that was awarded to me by Nita Ambani, the chairperson of Football Sports Development Ltd,” says Patnaik, who also received the Biju Patnaik Award for Outstanding Coach by Odisha Government in 2014.
His academy also offers free hostel facility to selected girls. The financial support in running the academy comes from well-wishers, friends and his savings, says the coach, who was a former auditor in the office of Accountant General in Bhubaneswar. Every day, he spends at least eight hours training the present batch.
“There is no bigger happiness than seeing the once helpless girls leading a life of comfort. Many of them today have government jobs,” he says with a contentment on face.