On a cold and wet winter afternoon, some 30km from the district headquarters of Bhiwani, tired boys buckled up to return home after seven hours of school. But for the girls, the ringing of the closing bell was a signal to don their kits and get ready to reach the sports ground for their daily football practice.
Girls playing football? And that too in a socially conservative state that has drawn negative attention for its skewed sex ratio and where girls are known to have been victims of gender discrimination, from womb to adulthood?
In about 30 minutes, around 200 girls gathered in the two big village grounds for the second session of their daily six-hour practice. Despite the drizzle and the chill, they played with skill and vigour, as well as determination. For, football to them is not just a game, but a way to make their dreams come true.
The game has won them trophies, scholarships and jobs and has helped the Haryana village stand out for gender equality and women's empowerment in a state not known for either.
The story goes back nearly a decade. The then school coach, Gordhan Dass, was busy training boys for kabaddi, a traditional rural sport, when girls in the school began pestering him every now and then. "Indulge us in sports! We also want to play!" they pleaded.
"They wanted to play. So, I gave them a football lying in our sports room," said Dass.
Around 40-50 young girls thus began kicking the ball around for fun and the physical activity it provided, knowing little about the skills or techniques of the sport. "For around two years, the girls kept playing, and got better. They started learning the techniques by themselves and I could see them doing well in future if given the correct guidance," Dass said.
That's how the powerful and inspirational sports journey of a small village in Haryana began—a journey that has sent around a dozen women to the international level where they represented India with girls from other parts of the country.
Founded in 2012, the Alakhpura Football Club participated in the Indian Women's League last year where Sanju Yadav from the village was the top scorer with 11 goals. It has two consecutive Subroto Cup (national championship for schools) titles to its name in the under-17 age category.
"There is a footballer in every house," say villagers, taking pride in their girls. The same people had once criticised Dass for encouraging girls to play.
"They felt I was doing an objectionable job. Thankfully, my own daughter used to be one of the players. That was a very legitimate reason for many of them to show trust and support," Dass recalled.
Sonika Bijarnia, who took over as coach after Dass was transferred to nearby Barsi, said: "We started with limited resources—very few balls, one ground full of pits and prickles. Now, the government is ready to install synthetic turf on one of our grounds."
"Girls who have played at the state-level have got scholarships that helped in their advancement, consequently compelling their parents to believe in their game. Many of them have got government jobs through the sports quota," she said.
"This life of an independent working woman was unimaginable for girls who knew their fate was confined to a bit of education followed by an early marriage. Problems for girls generally are many. There still is a long way to go for our girls," she added.
"I wish to see them pull off this game like players in Argentina and Brazil. That is my dream."
Bijarnia said that the village soon plans to hold a children's football league under which there will be under-eight, under-10 and under-12 matches for children "so that they don't remain mere spectators but develop interest early".
Girls and boys will play together in these matches, she said.
Poonam Sharma, who has played for India twice in Asian Football Confederation (AFC) events— once in the under-19 AFC Championship qualifiers in Vietnam (2016) and then in AFC Women's Asian Club qualifiers in North Korea (2017)—said everything has changed in the past 10 years.
"There was no aim in the beginning. Now we enjoy the game and there is a dream to do something for the village and the country."
"I am pursuing my graduation but I won't need to work. I am a footballer. My game is my priority. I don't wish to take up any other job," she said.
Sharma, who has three sisters and a brother, said: "My father used to complain that he had four daughters. Now, when we are bringing glory through the game, he is happy thinking his girls are doing a great job."
Balancing studies and sports can be burdensome. How do these girls manage that? "Boys might feel some pressure. These girls don't. The best of our players are the best of our students too," said Bhupender Singh, one of the two physical training teachers at the school.
Ritu Bagaria, who played in an international friendly match where India beat Malaysia 2-0, said: "Apart from studying and practice, my daily schedule includes helping my mother with the household work and also working in the farms with my father."
"There is no pressure or anything. I am able to spare time for all these errands," said the 19-year-old Bagaria, who is pursuing her BA third year from the Mahila Mahavidyalaya in Bhiwani.
Bagaria, who has been playing football for the last nine years, said that while her parents were supportive, people in her neighbourhood used to make acerbic comments about her initially.
"But with time, they calmed down."