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Kerala trailblazer: Meet Sarsamma Lalitha, who represented Indian football in 1981

Updated: Sep 18, 2020

What is most exciting about Lalitha’s football journey is that she began without formal training, simply watching others play and joining in.

Lalitha, just 20 years old then, was a member of the Indian women’s football team that was being felicitated by the then Prime Minister, before it set off for the 1981 Football World Cup in Taiwan.

The only player selected to the national squad from Kerala, Lalitha had come to Delhi from the coastal village of Valiyathura near Thiruvananthapuram. For her, the entire journey to Delhi and on to an alien country was an experience of joyous ecstasy.

36 years later, Lalitha can’t forget a single moment of those thrilling years when she roved across the country and visited countries like Taiwan, Hong Kong and Thailand  to play the glorious game. But for many years, this pioneering footballer was forgotten by officials, sports fans and the media alike.

It is only now that the Under-17 World Cup tournament has come to Kochi, that the rest of the state once again remembers her contributions to the game, thanks to the many media reports taking a look back at her career.

Lalitha, who returned to the game in 2016 as a children’s coach after retiring as an Administrative Officer of the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation, says that through all the years the love of the game has remained strong in her mind. “I can’t live without football. All those years as a busy player still shine in my mind as brightly as in a mirror,” says 57-year-old Lalitha.  

What is most inspiring about the illustrious career of this football pioneer is that she began her footballing journey without any formal training in the game. Like many other women and men of those years, Lalitha picked up the game simply by watching others play and eventually joining in.

Valiyathura, in those years, used to be a nurturing ground for women football players, says Lalitha.

“I used to watch when other women, especially my neighbor Usha, many of them elder to me, practiced at the ground near my home. Those were the days when women were generally not allowed to pursue sports, but our place was a bit different. Aniyachan of the Valiyathura Football Club noticed my interest in the game, and asked my annan (elder brother) Rajan to send me for practice. Annan convinced my parents and that was the beginning,” narrates Lalitha.

The young girl, 14 years old at the time, rode far and wide on the bicycle of her father, a daily wage labourer, to take advantage of whatever opportunities she could to develop her game.

“There was the IMA Football Club at Mukkolakkal then and the men of the club used to practice every day. I began to join them also. No one had a formal trainer. We just played on the grounds that were open,” narrates Lalitha.

Besides the lack of trainers and coaches, says Lalitha, there was a woeful paucity of facilities and infrastructure of any kind too. “I even went door to door with the other members of the IMA Club to collect money to buy shoes,” chuckles Lalitha, naming each member of the club team. “I still remember every one of them,” she declares.

She also reveals that it was only thanks to her elder brother Rajan’s support that she managed to find a foothold in the game.

“Those days the boots available in the market that we could afford were not that great. They would tear easily, and we would get them nailed together by a cobbler. Annan, from the meager income he earned, bought me a pair of boots. I couldn’t have been in the game if he was not there. Even today, how many brothers support women to play football so wholeheartedly?” she asks. 

Lalitha’s passionate efforts were first rewarded with a place in the district football team in 1978. By the next year, she made it into the Kerala team. “I played in many places in the country. There were exhibition matches held in various parts of the country, apart from tournaments,” narrates Lalitha.

In 1980, she moved on to the national stage with a berth in the Indian team. While three other players from Kerala, including the state team captain Iyona, Treasa Margaret and Treasa Rozario were selected for the coaching camp for the upcoming World Cup, it was only Lalitha who made it into the final team from the state. Together with two Bengali players and one Manipuri player, Lalitha led the charge as a forward of the team.

In Taiwan, in the very first match against Argentina, Lalitha assisted in scoring a goal. As the tournament progressed, her efforts received an unexpected recognition.

“A Keralite man came to the stadium in Taiwan, asking, ‘Who is the Malayali player in the team?’. His question was in Malayalam and I was surprised. He gifted me a pair of Adidas shoes. My happiness knew no bounds. I kept those shoes for so many years,” she recalls happily.

Prior to the World Cup, Lalitha found herself a place in the Asia Cup team, participating in the third edition of the tournament in Hong Kong in June 1981.

As part of the Kerala state team too, Lalitha found many successes. One of the highlights of her domestic career was the semi-final of the National Women’s Football Championship in 1984, when Lalitha scored four goals against Karnataka, to take Kerala to a 5-0 victory. And she crowned her achievements at the championship held at the Chandrasekharan Nair Stadium Thiruvananthapuram with the winning goal against West Bengal in the final.

Lalitha recalls the gusto with which spectators in her home state cheered her on in those days. “The enthusiasm of the galleries was overwhelming. I don’t know where we lost the momentum. If the encouragement for football had persisted, the country could have done wonders. But even now we don’t have many great players,” she says.

However, she admits, media coverage for sports is increasing in the country. “If I were playing now, I wonder how much media coverage I would have received,” she says.

At the time, says Lalitha, she did receive a fair amount of recognition from sports bodies and the government. In 1982, she received a job with the KSRTC. “The then Chief Minister K Karunakaran and Transport Minister KK Balakrishnan took special interest, and I was directly recruited to the job,” Lalitha says. And in 1983, she was honoured with the GV Raja Award, the most prestigious award in Kerala for football players – instituted in the name of PR Godavarma Raja, an instrumental in figure in promoting sports in the state.

Lalitha hung up her boots in 1987, making the decision to get married and raise a family. She married Lohi Dasan, a bank officer, and raised two daughters, Liya and Shruthi.  

“The break I took for my family was a big one. Yes I was sad to be away from the grounds. But I don’t regret it at all,” she says.

But after a break of 29 years, Lalitha returned to the football pitch in 2016, to start training children, both boys and girls, at the University Stadium in Thiruvananthapuram on weekends. “My dream is to build up an all-women team,” she says.

Lalitha says that through all the long years of raising her family, she had never ventured towards any formal exercise regimen. “I had not done any exercise during the break I took, except doing the cooking and cleaning at home,” she says. Despite that, she adds, getting back into the game was a comfortable process. “I didn’t feel any difficulty at all,” she says.  

She’s also trying her level best to encourage more parents to let their children get involved in the sport. “Even through my media interviews, what I intend is for more and more people to grow willing to train their children in football. Children become both mentally and physically fit if they get properly trained in any sport,” she says. 

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