Manisha Kalyan 'Dinho': Footballing intelligence, pace, technique and a dash of imagination

Manisha Kalyan is one of India's most exciting players. AIFF

"I started my run knowing, for sure, that Indu akka [Indumathi Kathiresan] would play the right pass," says Manisha Kalyan. "She did, picking out Pyari [Xaxa]. When Pyari headed it on, she dragged two defenders towards her, which opened up space for me and the run I was making. Since there was [that space], I pushed it forward and sprinted at full speed. The centre-back couldn't really come forward [once Kalyan neared the box], since she had to hold her defensive line. That gave me some space [in a good area]. Then I spotted the goalkeeper was a little out of position [not covering the angle to the far post], so I quickly took the shot and it went in."

If you have a passing interest in Indian football, you know what Kalyan is talking about here. For the uninitiated, it's the goal she scored for India against Brazil in November 2021, the goal that saw her, and Indian women's football, capture the nation's collective imagination. If only for a brief minute. Going into the AFC Women's Asian Cup that starts next week, she hopes to make that a lot more long-lasting.

India have a relatively tough group, being pitted against the two teams that have won the tournament the most (China, 8 and Chinese Taipei, 3), but Kalyan is not anxious. This is partly due to the number of exposure tours India have had over the past year (including that four-nation tournament in Brazil), and partly the amount of hours the team have put in at the national camp. "Earlier, we used to be a little scared going into tough matches," she says. "But we've played so many now that the fear is gone. Now whichever team comes, we just want to play, give them a proper fight. After all, we've worked very, very hard for so long."

Kalyan is India's starting left wing forward. A short-haired, blonde-tipped livewire, she's only 20, and the team's most exciting player. She has that intangible X-factor -- when she's on the ball, you just get the feeling something will happen.

That is, of course, shaped by some very tangible qualities. Take that goal against Brazil, for instance, and re-read her own analysis of it. It took 12 seconds for the ball to go from Kathiresan's feet to the back of the Brazil net. In that span, Kalyan had read exactly what her teammates were going to do, how the opposition defence would react, interpreted correctly that she wouldn't be closed down near the box, spotted the one angle that would beat the keeper and placed it powerfully and accurately into the far corner. Footballing intelligence, pace, technique. And a dash of imagination. There's a reason the kids in her village used to call her 'Dinho'.

Kalyan may have been born just a year before Ronaldinho tore up the Japan-South Korea World Cup, but she grew up on a staple diet of his videos. "I used to look like him. Earlier I used to have long hair, and tied it in a ponytail." She also has that endearing buck-toothed grin of his. That, plus her skill on the ball which left the boys she played with biting dust. "My first Instagram profile was named MKD. D for Dinho," she says with a big laugh.

Unlike her Brazilian hero, though, Kalyan hadn't dived right into football. "I started playing football only when I was in eighth standard back home in Mugowal. I used to be a 100m and 200m sprinter, but one day my PT teacher got duty as a selector for the district team [Hoshiarpur, Punjab]. He asked me if I was interested, so I gave it a go," she says. Then she kicked a ball, and there was no looking back. "I fell in love with the game. I told him that no matter what, I just want to play football from now on."

"We trained after school hours, while athletics practice was going on by the side. Soon, though, I had to change schools so I could keep playing football. The nearest that had a girls' team was in Paldi, so I used to cycle the 15 kms to and fro. I was desperate to continue the sport."

From Paldi, she was recruited by Kenkre FC. She then played the IWL with Sethu FC, after which she got called up for the U17 national team. Then the U18, the U19 and now the senior team. She won the IWL with Gokulam Kerala in 2020 before creating history the following year by becoming the first Indian woman to score in a continental club tournament when she scored against Uzbekistan's FC Bunyodkar in the AFC women's Asian championship. It's been quite the rapid ascent.

Along the way there were the usual obstacles that almost every girl athlete in India faces. "When I started playing, there were some people who would say... 'How is a girl playing alone with boys?' Some relatives and villagers would come and complain at home," she says. You can sense the contemptuous undertone. What helped her, though, was that her parents paid no heed. "I used to tell them, I'll do something in football, become someone. Let me do it. And they did."

The teachers in Paldi would stay back to teach Kalyan and her teammates when they missed classes for training or tournaments, to help them fill the gaps in syllabus. Her coaches, from school to the National Team, have always backed her. The vast majority of her "football-loving village" rallied behind her. Now, especially after the Brazil goal, the happiness in her career choice is unanimous, she says with a smile.

Over the next few weeks, she will be looking to spread the cheer, racing up and down India's left flank, creating magic, scoring goals. The biggest stage Indian women's football has seen in two decades awaits a hero, and Manisha Kalyan is ready.