Last fall, I took part in a two day seminar at my university. Going into the seminar, I didn’t know anyone. Over the course of two days, I laughed, learned a lot about people from different parts of the planet and made new friends. One of the new friends I made was a young woman named Anushka. When starting Horizon's United, I recalled Anushka talking about how she pushed for a girl’s football team during high school. Recalling that memory made me realize she would be a perfect candidate to interview. Luckily enough, this 18 year-old mathematics major had a friend who’s just as crazy about football as she is…
Wandering eyes, this is Anushka and Sairam's story...
(Anushka - right, Sairam - left, Photo by Horizon Starwood)
Would you mind telling me where you are from?
Anushka: We’re both Indian but we were born and brought up in the United Arab Emirates.
Can you tell me your first memory of soccer? Did you play when you were little?
Anuska: For me personally, I didn’t start playing soccer until I was in high school. I used to watch it a lot with my dad, cousins and brothers because they loved soccer. I think my first vivid memory would be the FIFA World Cup that I watched in 2010.
Do you know where it was?
Sairam: South Africa!
Anushka: South Africa! Right! That was my first vivid memory of watching football with them.
Sairam: I’ve been playing and watching since I was a kid. My first memory of playing soccer would be…wait, would it be okay if I reference it as “football”?
Anushka: Yeah. I like using “football” too.
Yeah! You totally can!
Sairam: My first memory of playing football was when I was about five. I would play with my brother and cousin a lot. I guess that’s how I got good at the game you could say? The first match I actually saw was the 2008 Champions League final in Moscow. It was Manchester United versus Chelsea.
Anushka: Oooh [laughs]
Sairam: That’s why I support Chelsea 'till this day. I mean, there was a match before that. The 2006 World Cup final. We were in India at the time but it was pretty late for us, so I couldn’t watch the final because I had to go to bed. But I remember my cousin and brother watching it. They were talking loudly about it.
And Anushka, if I remember correctly, you said that when you were a senior in high school, that was the first year a girls team was running at your school?
Could you tell me a little bit more about what that was like and what led to the creation of that team?
Anushka: Well, I like watching sports more than playing it. I don’t think I am the best player or anything like that. I saw a lot of girls that wanted to play. We’d been trying to get a soccer team for a while but the coaches would say, “oh, it’s not in the school’s budget” or the school would say they did not have enough funding for it. The boys who were our classmates wouldn’t give us the time of day to use the fields.
One day we brought it up to management and they said, “okay we’ll do it” but we didn’t have a girls coach at the time. The senior boys football team decided to help us out and coach the girls team. Once I graduated, they actually hired a coach for the girls team.
What was the dynamic like?
Anushka: It was very weird. Even in school, during our lunch breaks and stuff, the boys would run to the football fields. And if we ever asked if we could play, they wouldn’t care or wouldn’t give us the time of day. I knew that there were a lot of girls, especially my sister and her friends from middle school who wanted to play.
I keep seeing pictures of the girls team now and they’ve done matches abroad and stuff. They are actually beating the boys team at our school so I really like that. I know that even if I didn’t play in the game, I would still advocate for them.
Sairam, did you play football during high school?
Sairam: I mean, I didn’t play for a team but I did play a lot. It was part of group exercise as well. I would play in and outside of school. Weekends. We played a lot there (UAE).
Being here in Amherst, Massachusetts, do you feel as if your passion for football has changed?
Sairam: I mean, I don’t think anything can change my passion for football. There are a bunch of sports that I would like to get into. There are some American sports as well, but for me, nothing beats football. Actually, I’d say it’s gotten better here. Many people here don’t watch football as much as back home or in Europe or anywhere else in the world for that matter. It's hard to find people who are just as enthusiastic to watch matches, go to games or to play as well. I think that’s one of the hardest things. Luckily I found a few friends to play with who are international students and they are pretty enthusiastic about the game. We play on the weekends sometimes.
How do you feel about your passion, Anushka? Has it changed?
Anushka: Like I said before, I haven’t played that much. I prefer watching it. I think in the last two years I’ve lost touch as school got in the way. Usually matches are late at night for us. I could never keep up. I’ve been watching it more here (the US).
Do you predominately watch the Premier League or do you watch any other leagues?
Sairam: Yeah I watch Premier League and Champions League.
Anushka: Same here.
So are you a Chelsea fan as well?
Anushka: Me? Ummm, yes. [laughs]
What do you think about the representation of the players on the pitch?
Sairam: Players of color have come a long way but it’s still not perfect. There’s still racism. Especially in Italy and eastern Europe as well. You read a lot about it in the news. It’s not nice to see at all.
LGBTQ+ players are afraid to come out because they’re afraid they’ll get slaughtered on the internet by the fan base. There’s still a lot of work to do, but with that being said, nothing can take away from the fact that we have come a long way.
When you hear the term, “World Cup”, what are a few words that come to mind? Like, does it excite you? Worry you? What are your feelings toward it?
Anushka: Yes! I look forward to it.
Sairam: World Cup season is always amazing!
Anushka: I think it’s really fun because back home, we would have watch parties and everyone would come together.
Sairam: Back home, everybody would watch it. No matter where you are from, there are a lot of Arabs and Indians, but both of them are watching the game.
Anushka: Even bars and other places would have it on.
That sounds like a cool environment. I feel as if over here, football is looked at as just a sport to play. How would you define football going beyond just being a sport?
Sairam: For me personally, it’s a good way to make friends. It’s way more than a sport - it’s a culture. Actually, one of my biggest goals in life is to go to London and watch a game in Stamford Bridge or if we’re away, at United Emirates and we beat Arsenal. But yeah, it’s way more than a sport for me. It brings everyone together. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, what you do, at the end of the day, if there’s a game on, if you are or you’re not supporting the same team, you are still coming together in the same place. You forget about all the problems going on in your life. I think that’s amazing. It’s almost like the Super Bowl here in the States, an American Football Superbowl is a pretty big deal, but football transcends it.
Anushka: I think soccer, I mean football [laughs] has a wider audience.
Sairam: There are so many people that watch it. Europe. Asia. Latin America. Africa. It’s all around the world.
Anushka: Like he was saying, sports, like any source of entertainment, it’s going to bring people together. It calms you. You can get lost in it.