• September 2011

Soccer Champ Joanna Lohman Is Off to India

By Joanna Lohman
Professional Soccer Player
Philadelphia Independence

Sadly, the Women’s Professional Soccer season is over this month. I am sure that I speak for most professional athletes when I say that it is hard to transition from an intense, competitive environment to a period of rest (especially for six months, which is the length of the off-season for a female pro soccer player in the United States).

Considering how much fulfillment we get from playing the game at the highest level, what does one do in the months between seasons? I have decided to take the term “off-season” quite lightly, and I am turning my good situation in Philly into a great situation in Spain. I will be playing for a team named Espanyol in the heart of the Barcelona.

Again this winter, I get to travel the world doing what I love, and live in one of the most fabulous locations in the world. My teammate, Lianne Sanderson, and I will also be traveling to Jharkhand, India, this fall to work with an inspiring NGO called Yuwa (short for “Youth” in Indian). Our goal is to teach soccer as a means of changing lives, as well as grow the game of women’s soccer in India.

I recently had the privilege to interview Franz Gastler, the founder of Yuwa, to unlock the magic behind his organization, and find out exactly what’s in store for Lianne and me.

Joanna Lohman: What inspired Yuwa? When did you start it and why?

Franz Gastler: I came to India five years ago through Sam Pitroda, a legendary Indian telecom entrepreneur whom I’d met in Chicago. I wanted to build business models for poverty alleviation, and so he suggested I start at Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), India’s biggest business lobby, which had a committee on CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility]. I made great contacts and worked with some top businesspeople, but after six months of wearing a suit and tie in 120-degree weather, and then commuting to work during the monsoon on a bicycle rickshaw, I was ready to leave office life behind.

I moved from New Delhi to a tribal village in Jharkhand, where I lived for six months working for an NGO. Jharkhand is India’s top source for human trafficking, and worst state for child marriage. Lonely Planet travel guide says that if you’re a tourist in Jharkhand, you may be the only one, adding “there is widespread government corruption, sporadic intercaste warfare, banditry, and Naxalite [insurgent] violence, all of which contribute to the region being the poorest, least literate, and most lawless area in India.” But I didn’t know any of that then.

I just got lucky, I guess. Living in the village, I noticed that for young women, the script was always the same: while boys play, girls work. I saw a huge amount of talent and energy in the young people in villages, but little chance for education. I noticed that nothing brought together the community like football and festivals—but it was only the boys who played football.

A 12-year-old tribal girl named Suman Toppo, one of my former students whom I’d worked with to gain admission to a good private school on scholarship, said she wanted to play football. I told her that if she organized a team, I would coach. Then I asked a group of older boys in the village whom I’d been tutoring in English if any would coach the team with me, and three agreed.

Suman brought together 15 girls, 11 of them her sister and cousins, and the other four her neighbors. Ten months later, of those 15, seven made it onto the state team, along with six from our second team. And this team of sisters, cousins, and neighbors all from the same small village rose the state’s national ranking from 20th to fourth, beating Delhi 8-1 and Maharashtra (Mumbai) 3-0, among other wins.

Joanna Lohman: Why did you choose the state of Jharkhand, India, as Yuwa’s base, and what do you hope to accomplish with this NGO?

Franz Gastler: For me, it was a simple coincidence that I ended up in Jharkhand. In 2006 I was a youth ambassador at the UN General Assembly in NYC, and I met an industrialist who had started an NGO in Jharkhand. By chance I ended up working with him again through CII, and he offered me a job in Jharkhand with his NGO.

But after an initial honeymoon period, I started to lose my romantic notions of NGOs and got the sense that “local participation” usually just means getting out of the way of the Land Rover. I eventually moved back to the States, and lived in NYC for five months before returning to Jharkhand and starting Yuwa.

If you want to make a real difference for girls, there’s no better place to start than Jharkhand—if you can do it here, you can do it anywhere.

When a girl is born in Jharkhand, her life has usually already been planned out for her. She is isolated—if she is not seen working, she is harassed. She is illiterate—more than six in 10 women here can’t read.

She is married off now—Jharkhand leads Indian states in child marriages—but remains vulnerable—an estimated 30,000 girls from Jharkhand are trafficked every year. She gets pregnant. The cycle continues.

For a girl in Jharkhand, even home can be a dangerous place. Yuwa brings girls out of isolation and into a positive team environment. Daily practice and a team platform give us access to large numbers of at-risk girls, and a girl with confidence can rewrite the script others have prepared for her.

When a girl organizes or joins a Yuwa team, through positive peer pressure she becomes a more regular student—players elect team captains, who keep track of school attendance, and many girls attend daily study sessions at Yuwa Club.

She pays attention to her own health and to the health of her teammates, and gets access to information about her body through weekly adolescent health classes with her teammates. She marries when she chooses—on Yuwa’s first team, not a single girl married below the age of 18, even though several of their older sisters had been married off at age 15. She will raise a healthy family. The cycle continues.

Joanna Lohman: What are your daily challenges?

Franz Gastler: I lived in a house made of mud in Rukka village, taught English at the local government school, and built up good relationships and friendships with a number of people. But the community’s response to girls playing football was not all positive.

The following is from Tehelka, a weekly national news magazine: “The toughest resistance Gastler encountered was from the mothers who missed the girls’ help with housework, and from local boys who wanted to take over the new field during monsoon.”

Helena, our star social mobilizer, and I met with the girls’ mothers, and I suggested, “If you ever do find that your girls have gone off to play when they should be at home working, I keep seeing this group of older boys squatting over there playing cards whenever I come by … I’m sure they’d be happy to help out.” As Helena finished translating, the ladies all broke out laughing. Eventually the girls and mothers reached a compromise: the girls still did most of the work they had done before—just faster.

Debu and Jhabu, who are brothers, now help their wives cook dinner while their daughters are at football. Debu is the father of Suman, our first team organizer, and Seema, the team’s assistant captain. Jhabu has three daughters on the same team—Usha, Puspa (who has made it to the national team) and Reena, who is team captain. It’s growing pains.

In the monsoon of 2009, local boys descended on the new field that we had leveled with a tractor and which for months the girls had been picking clean of rocks and pebbles. Within a couple of days, the field was littered with tobacco packets and trash, and the girls were left on the side, frustrated and frightened. Those who were brave and stubborn enough to go onto the field had balls kicked at them. They pleaded with their coaches to do something.

Yuwa’s coaches, Helena, and I met with parents, and with help from the gram pradhan (village head), whose niece plays goalkeeper, we appealed to the girls’ brothers—some of whom were part of the group who had taken over the field—and another boy in his late teens who was looked up to by the rest, even though he just followed what the others were doing.

The pack mentality softened, and a month later, it splintered when we all found ourselves on the same side battling against the biggest private hospital in Jharkhand and the army. The hospital dumped its medical waste on the goal line, and the army tore up the field with big trucks. Neither act was malicious, just lazy and (not that it matters here) illegal.

The hospital administrator, behind his metal desk, looked at me without expression when I reported the issue, and sent me away. I returned with a laptop and photos, and he said his security head would go and have a look.

Barefoot kids and women were already walking over and picking through the used IV needles, syringes, drug bottles, and urine and blood bags, packing it all up to try to resell.

They very generously emptied their bags so I could show the security man the labels from the hospital. He returned to the administrator and, with me standing next to him, reported that the waste had most certainly not come from the hospital.

Jhabu, working as a brick mason on the hospital’s new construction, came to my side, and standing about two feet shorter and weighing about as much as one of the administrator’s legs, risked his job and spoke up.

He was waved off with a smirk. I told the administrator that I’d simply wanted to give him a chance to put things right before reading about it in the newspapers. He responded, “Are you threatening me? That is not very smart.” He has a local mafia behind him, so I had been very polite, worried about the safety of the girls and their families if he felt too threatened.

Our coaches got an urgent call about an hour later from Mr. Ansari, whom we knew as the village tailor. Apparently he was moonlighting as the hospital’s garbage collector, and he’d gotten a furious call from the administrator who ordered him to pick up whatever he’d dumped so these people from the football team would stop hassling him.

About a week later, after a truckload of soldiers sheepishly returned at the crack of dawn to fill in the holes they’d made on the same field, the one boy who had been the most aggressive with the girls and had tried to pick a fight with me while drunk, came up with a huge smile, and shook my hand.

Eight months later, another amazing thing happened. Shantanu, a writer from Sports Illustrated India, visited Hutup village and was following behind my motorcycle in his car when he stopped for a spontaneous interview with someone who had waved at him. I looked back and cringed—it was Mr Ansari, trash-man and tailor.

I laughed out loud out with sheer astonishment when Shantanu caught back up with me and said without the least hint of sarcasm, “People here really love you!”
In his personal essay for a job interview at a computer center, a young man named Manoj (19) from Hutup village was asked to write about something interesting in his village, something that made Hutup different from other villages. He wrote about girls in Hutup playing football, and he ended up getting the job. But for a little less pay, Manoj ended up accepting another offer: he became Yuwa’s third leading coach.

Another anecdote from Tehelka: “Savitri, the mother of Sita Kumari, sometimes feels self-conscious when she sees Gastler at her home in the evening, the floor crowded with ricebeer drinkers who pay Rs 10 for an earthen pot of haria and another Rs 10 for a bowl of peanuts. But that is an occasional twinge. ‘Without football, Sita would be working with me in the kitchen, making haria [rice beer] for the villagers. It would have been a life of obscurity,’ she says.”

Joanna Lohman: What are your fondest memories during your time in Jharkhand? Greatest accomplishment?

Franz Gastler: I’m lucky that I don’t have to think back any further than a few hours on any given day for my fondest memory … something wonderful and surprising. It changes day by day, and it’s usually something small—a touch on the ball, someone falling down and getting back up, an 11 year old lining up for a corner kick that I think won’t get anywhere near the goal box, instead soaring in like an artillery shell.

These girls don’t have much, but they’ve got more determination than just about anyone I’ve ever met. Football’s the kind of game where the best coach is just the game itself. And when you play it as much, and with as much enthusiasm, as they do, the results are brilliant. I especially like watching the players who are not necessarily natural athletes, but who sometimes come up with the play of the game.

When the player who isn’t blessed with inborn talent consistently starts serving up great first touches when the pressure is on, you can be sure she’s paid the full price for that.

She’s taken no short-cuts. We have a girl like that who used to wait near the field every day before 4 a.m., and she came to 307 out of 311 practices last year.
Most of all I think my favorite memories are of kids doing something to write a different script for themselves than the one they’d been given.

Joanna Lohman: What can someone who reads this article do to help the players of Yuwa and the state of Jharkhand?

Franz Gastler: We welcome support and partnerships!

  • Yuwa Sports Academy for Women: Funding partners for creating Academy, a rural training hub imparting training, education, and combating human trafficking in Jharkhand (Yuwa has won a Gamechangers Grant from Nike and Architecture for Humanity for partial funding).
  • Yuwa Premier League for Women: Funding partners for League, discovering hidden talents, building confidence and camaraderie through competition, and giving underprivileged young women the chance to play (Coca-Cola India has committed already as a co-sponsor).
  • Health, education, and livelihoods: Funding and in-kind support for improving adolescent health, nutrition, and offering a chance for real education to help build future livelihoods.

For more information, visit www.yuwa-india.org.

About Joanna Lohman

Professional soccer player Joanna Lohman has played in the WUSA Festivals in both Minneapolis and Los Angeles in 2004, and was a member of the 2005 Freedom Reserves. She trained with USWNT during the 2004 Olympic Residency Training Camp and was a member of U21 US national team from 2000-2005, captaining the squad from 2003-2004. She helped lead her U21 team to three Nordic Cup championships, earning MVP honors in 2002.

In college at Penn State, she scored 19 goals and had six assists her senior season, finishing her career at No. 5 in all-time goals scored (41), No. 2 in assists (37), No. 4 in points (114) and No. 1 in scoring game-winning goals (8).

Among other honors, she was named Pennsylvania’s NCAA Woman of the Year in 2004, was a two-time M.A.C. Hermann Trophy finalist (2002-2003), a two-time Honda Sports Award Finalist (2002-2003), and a finalist for the Collegiate Women’s Sports Award for Women’s Soccer in 2003.

Originally from Washington, DC, Lohman currently lives outside Philadelphia and plays for the Philadelphia Independence soccer team.