Many consider Calcutta as the Mecca of Indian football. For Calcuttans, football is an integral part of their lives. Whether you follow it regularly or not, it is always there, lurking around the corner, waiting to remind you of its existence in a country where cricket is a religion. Growing up in 90s Calcutta, you wouldn’t find a Bengali who couldn’t argue and converse confidently about fish, football and politics. Football was and will forever be the heart and soul of Calcutta.
When we talk about football and India in the same sentence, Kolkata is seemingly the first destination. It reminds one of East Bengal-Mohun Bagan rivalry and conversations about players like Gostha Pal, Chuni Goswami, P.K. Banerjee, Bhaichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri. It didn’t matter whether you were born in the city or you played for a club – you instantly became part of Calcutta’s football culture. Probably that is why the city has seen legends of the game like Pele, Maradona and Messi visit Calcutta.
However, growing up, none of us ever heard of women playing the game, let alone saw them play. It was just not a woman’s game. Today we hear about the exploits of former players like Shanti Mallick, Bembem Devi and Yolanda D’Souza.
The current crop of players – Bala Devi, Dangmei Grace, Indumathi, Dalima Chhibber and the captain Ashalata Devi have done commendably well to help India rank 57th in the FIFA rankings. Bala Devi currently plays for Scottish giants Rangers SC, but the women playing the sport in India have a long road ahead to find acknowledgement, recognition and fame.
Nevertheless, the popularity of the women’s game is growing and India will be hosting the Under-17 FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2022 (postponed from 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic).
Unbeknownst to most of us, there is a woman footballer – celebrated across the globe, a pioneer and champion of the game who has played in three World Cups; and is connected to the Mecca of Indian football. You wouldn’t be the only one to not know. Many of her fellow countrymen don’t know.
Samantha May Kerr. She is not an ordinary player. At age 15, she earned her first cap for the Australian women’s football team, the Matildas. What is extraordinary about her story is that three years prior to that, she didn’t even consider a future in football. Simply put, she didn’t have any interest in football. Like most Australians, Australian rules football was her favourite sport. And why not? Her brother, Daniel Kerr, was an established and famous footy player for the West Coast Eagles.
Sam has led the Matildas at the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019, has various records under her belt and currently plays for the FA Women’s Super League champions, Chelsea. Known for her speed and tenacity and the famous backflip celebration, in 2019, Kerr became the first Australian (male or female) footballer to score a hat-trick at the World Cup. This past season, she helped Chelsea win the league and picked up the Golden Boot with an astonishing 21 goals in 22 matches. With this latest accolade, she became the first soccer player to win a golden boot in three different leagues across three different countries and three different continents.
The Calcutta Bond
Denzil Mowbray Kerr was born in Calcutta in 1912 and was baptized at the St. Andrew’s Church in Calcutta. He was a metallurgist and a featherweight boxer for Bengal. His wife, Coral Beryl Kerr, affectionately known as ‘Nanna Kerr,’ was also born in Calcutta and played basketball.
Coral and Denzil’s son, Roger Alan Kerr, was born in the City of Joy in 1960. Coral and her late husband, Denzil, and son, Roger, arrived in Australia in the year 1969 by a flight which itself had a long journey. The BA 722’s historic route reads somewhat like this — it would depart from London and then fly to Dusseldorf, Beirut, Karachi, Calcutta, Singapore, Jakarta, Darwin, Sydney and its final destination was Auckland. The family of three settled in Fremantle, a suburb of Perth.
In a video shared by the Westfield Matildas’, Sam’s paternal grandmother, Coral, speaks about her family’s journey from India to Perth, Australia. “I think that we made a fantastic choice in coming to Australia because we were originally booked to go to England. But, the doctor said my husband wouldn’t make it because of the weather; it’s too cold. So, then we applied to come here. It’s just great. My husband just loved it, he thought it was absolutely marvellous. At that time, all the Anglo-Indians were leaving: some to Canada, some to England. We sent my younger sister to England and we were going to follow, but we never followed. So, she stayed over there – she’s been there for sixty years – and we’ve been here just over fifty.”
Sam’s father, Roger, played for East Fremantle juniors and went on to make his senior debut for the Sharks in 1981 in the Western Australian Football League. He was part of the team’s Premiership victory in 1985. After retiring, Roger was the coach of South Fremantle and Claremont. Sam’s mother, Roxanne, and Roger lived in the same neighbourhood. Roxanne’s family as well was deeply rooted in sporting culture; her father and uncles have played in WAFL and she is related to famous footy players Con Reagen and Shaun McManus. She is also related to J. J. Miller who rode the 1966 Melbourne Cup winner, Galilee.
Roger and Roxanne are parents to four lovely children — Daniel, Levi, Madeline and Samantha. Sam’s eldest brother, Daniel, went to become a household name in AFL. He played 220 games for the West Coast Eagles and was part of the team’s 2006 AFL Grand Final. However, it is their youngest in the family who has etched a name in sporting and footballing history across the globe.
Not First Love
Samantha was born on September 10, 1993 in East Fremantle. Sam didn’t always love football (or soccer as it is known Down Under). Till the age of 12, she played footy with her brother and cousins and was embedded in the local club. However, for a young girl of Anglo-Indian background, it wasn’t easy. She was a girl in a boys’ team.
“It wasn’t up to me. Just after I turned 11, the boys started to grow up a lot. Being a young girl, I kinda was still tiny. The first half of the season they were my size and the second half, they were huge. And I think I came home with a bloody lip and a black eye one day and my brother being protective and my dad, they said that it is not happening anymore. It was probably right. It was getting rough and there was no women’s league at that point,” Sam tells USWNT player and two-time World Cup champion, Kelley O’Hara, in the Just Women’s Sports podcast.
“It was definitely a family thing. We always had the footy and tried to snap it in the house. Mum used to hate it and I have always been ingrained in it. My brother played it (AFL) and I was young; so, being a young kid growing up and having your brother as a professional athlete was awesome. That was like what you wanna do and your hero is playing. It is your brother. So, it was always footy for me,” she adds.
In 2017, Sam was quoted as saying by The Sunday Times, “One hundred per cent I would have stayed with football if I could. I was all AFL. I didn’t really like soccer that much. It’s actually a completely different skill. I think anyone can pick up an AFL ball and have a go — you throw the ball down and kick it. A soccer ball, though, it takes a lot more skill.”
Even in 2019, in an interview to The Guardian, Sam said, “Being taken away from footy really sucked. I was very good at it, I had good hand-eye coordination, my family was really embedded in the club, my brother played – everything was just easy for me. It hurt going from one of the better players, one of the most popular players. I just went from being at the top of my game, as much as you can as a kid, to going to the bottom moving to football. I didn’t know the rules, I didn’t know offside, I didn’t understand why no one would pass me the ball.”
The Rise of a Superstar
Sam was 15 years old when she made her debut for the Matildas against Italy in Canberra. She called herself ‘a crap’ in her first season as a footballer in an interview to The Guardian.
“I always said when I was a kid I’d be retired by 21, which is insane. But that was just my plan – do it until I could and then walk away,” Sam told Richard Parkin.
There is a funny incident that Sam narrates to Kelley in the Just Women’s Sport podcast.
“I remember my mum always tells this story which is like hilarious. The first time I played like a full season, one of the national team scouts came up to me and said, ‘Hi Sam. We want you to come and try out for the national youth team.’ And I said, ‘No, that’s okay. Thank you very much though.’ And walked off. And my mum’s like, ‘What?’ I was like I never wanna play seriously. I am just having fun and the guy was like shocked. Mum had to come back and be like, ‘No, come speak to him.’”
That was long ago. Sam’s rise had been fast and swift. Since then, Sam has played over 80 international matches for the Matildas and has scored over 40 goals. She has played in the National Women’s Soccer League in the USA, the W-League in Australia and now plays for Chelsea. She is still NWSL’s lead scorer with 77 goals from 119 appearances. She has won the NWSL Golden Boot for three consecutive years – 2017, 2018 and 2019. In her first season with Chelsea, she has won the FA Women’s Super League title, the League Cup and the Community Shield. She was nominated for the prestigious Ballon d’Or in 2019. And as mentioned previously in the article, she picked up the Golden Booth at the end of the 2020-21 FA WSL season.
Blue is the colour, Football is the game
Not just birds, human beings since the first homo sapiens have migrated – for food, better climate, future, social and economic improvement – in short, for a better livelihood. Sportstars are no different. Every now and then, you will find a footballer leaving one club for another, one league for another and one country for another. Sporting personalities often move away from their birth countries to live abroad.
By moving from Calcutta to Perth in the late 1960s, the Kerr family has given Australia their golden girl. For many young female footballers, her story and the connection that Sam has with India strings an unusual yet melodious and harmonious chord.
Kimberly Fernandez, a central defender in Maharashtra’s senior women’s team, is a self-proclaimed fan of Sam. “I am a huge fan of Sam Kerr! When I read that she has Indian ancestry, more accurately through her dad who is Anglo-Indian, I was so excited because she then became someone I could also resonate with.”
While talking about pursuing football as a career and her success in the game, Kimberly feels Sam’s story can inspire many like her. “I’m Anglo-Indian and I play football here in India and so it struck a chord with me you know, if she can do it, I can too!”
Footballer and Indian Women’s League commentator, Mithila Ramani, believes such stories can boost the women’s game in India. “I think that people knowing this would give them that extra boost of having to look up to a player like Sam Kerr with similar roots and it would take away that inhibition that Indians aren’t as strong as the foreigners,” said Mithila.
The Matildas will be visiting India for the AFC Asian Cup in late 2022. The opportunity to see Sam and the likes of Lisa de Vanna, Caitlin Foord, Emily van Egmond and Ellie Carpenter has seen interest in women’s football grow in the last 12 months.
“As a women’s football supporter and a Chelsea fan I’m very excited to watch Samantha Kerr play here in India next year. She’s one of the best in the game and I’ll consider myself very lucky if I get a chance to be at the stadium and watch her play in the AFC Asian Cup. She’s been exceptional in the WSL this season and I’m confident that she’ll continue this run with the Matildas and inspire the next generation of girls to play this beautiful game,” says Philarima Hynniewta who is a member of the Chelsea FC Women’s Supporters Shillong.
Sam, herself, is looking forward to visiting India. Ahead of the Champions League final, she told Asif Burhan in an interview for Forbes, “My Indian heritage is something I’m really proud of and I know my nanna’s really proud that I’m representing young Indian girls whenever I go out there and play. I think (reaching the final) was a really cool moment for my nan, and my family over here that is English, they’re really proud of me too. I hope it inspires young girls. We have the Asian Cup coming up in India next year so, fingers crossed, everything goes well in India and we can still get out there. I’ve never been to India. It’s something that I definitely want to get involved in, learning about my Indian heritage and culture.”
Sports provides us a peek into the different and varied cultures of the world and narrows the imaginary barriers and international borders that divide us. Through it – among various other events that the 21st century has tied itself with – we relive the past and witness history. Sam has never visited Calcutta or India. However, one can only hope that the Kerr family’s past connection with India and Sam’s current journey as she goes on to become a legend will inspire many young girls in the subcontinent to take up the sport and etch a name for themselves in the beautiful game.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sudatta Mukherjee has been a journalist for a decade, having worked with Zee Entertainment Private Ltd & Penske Media Corporation’s JV in India, CricketCountry.com, and The Hindu group’s Sportstar magazine in the past. She is a co-founder and director of an Aerospace and Defense organization, based out of U.S. and India. When she is not advocating for women’s sports, she can be found spending time with her tabby cat, cooking biryani and running in the wilderness.
This article was originally published as part of the second edition of Kalpanthu’s newsletter Vuvuzela. The newsletter costs just $7 or 550 rupees a year and empowers us to keep our YouTube channel for Indian football documentaries free for all. To subscribe/check out our content, visit https://theawayend.co/kalpanthu/