Having joined Cyprus champions Apollon Ladies FC, it was possible that Manisha Kalyan would feature in a UEFA Women’s Champions League game. Yet when the India forward did, as a 60th minute substitute for Cypriot Marilena Georgiou on Thursday, it felt momentous. Because it was where no Indian had ever gone.
Apollon beat Latvian club SK Riga 3-0 and will play FC Zurich on Sunday. Should they win, they will make the final round of the qualifiers of the tournament won by Lyon last season.
Asked what her thoughts were going into the game, Kalyan said she was “excited”. Speaking from Engomi in Cyprus, the India forward said: “It was a historical moment so when I got the chance to play, I felt very proud. If I get another chance, I will again try and give my best.”
Kalyan, 20, joined Apollon Ladies on a one-year deal which can be renewed for another year, said Kevin Kishore, media manager at Gokulam Kerala FC (GKFC), her former club. The deal happened through an agent who helped us get foreign players, added Kishore. Apollon also have Ghanaian Elshaddai Acheampong who was with GKFC last term.
Kalyan said she has been in Cyprus for approximately 45 days and the team readied for this competition by playing against a boys’ under-15 side and a senior women’s team. “Communication now is lot easier. The hotel where I stay has excellent facilities so it’s all good,” she said. The domestic league starts next month.
Kalyan got noticed last November when she scored from a brilliant solo effort against Brazil in a four-nation tournament in Manaus but she has been part of the India set-up since her under-17 days. She played in the 2018 U-17 BRICS tournament in South Africa. Known for cutting in from the left, Kalyan scored a hattrick in the 18-0 victory against Pakistan in an Asian under-19 qualifier in Thailand and set up the goal in the 1-0 win against the home team.
She played in the Hero Gold Cup in 2019, also her breakthrough year with the senior side. That year, she was part of the teams that won the SAFF championships and the South Asian Games, both in Nepal.
Current India under-17 coach Thomas Dennerby saw Kalyan from close when he took charge of the senior team for the 2022 Asian Cup. “It is amazing how much she has improved over the last few years,” said Dennerby. “She has always been a good player with a lot of speed and talent and she bodes well for the future of the women’s team.”
From Punjab, Kalyan moved in 2022 after three seasons with GKFC. “We spotted her when she was playing for India under-19 and was with an academy in Punjab. She joined us for the 2018-19 Indian Women’s League,” said Kishore. Kalyan won two league titles with GKFC and was the first Indian to score in the four-team 2021 AFC Women’s Club Championship.
Kishore is in Tashkent where GKFC await their fate in the 2022 edition of Asia’s apex club competition following India’s suspension by FIFA.
“She has the ability to shine in big games,” said GKFC coach Priya PV who had signed her. “She is comfortable shooting with both feet and was one of the fittest in the club and in the India squad. And her inswing crosses are very powerful,” said Priya, speaking from Tashkent.
Kalyan, adjudged India’s best woman footballer in 2021-22, is the second Indian after the national men’s team goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu to have played in Europe. In 2016, Sandhu, now with Bengaluru FC, played for Norwegian top tier side Stabaek FC in a Europa League qualifier.
“What a moment, and what a hero. What she has gone and done needs to be spoken about louder,” Sandhu tweeted. The India team’s official Twitter handle has also congratulated Kalyan.