As a little girl growing up in Mizoram in Northeast India, Ruth Lalkhawgaihsangi dreamt of becoming a professional football player. Out of school her time was spent kicking a ball around, while her grandfather was always watching or listening to a match.
“No-one in my family wanted me to play football. My mum and grandfather would tell me ‘it’s not a girl thing’, but I loved it and I was a good striker,” the 30-year-old says.
By the time she reached her teens, Ruth was playing for her district in inter-village tournaments. A few years later she was picked for the Mizoram state level football team, before being signed for the Mizoram national team as a left winger. After eight years of professional playing, she moved to Singapore in 2014 to work as a domestic helper and provide an income for her mother and two brothers back home.
“I didn’t think I’d ever have the opportunity to play in soccer tournaments like I used to ever again,” Ruth says. That was until last year, when rumours started circulating about a new futsal league especially for domestic workers in Singapore.
Determined to learn
The inaugural Migrant Domestic Workers Futsal League kicked off in September, 2022. Organised as a community project by the kind-hearted folks at D2D Sports, pioneers of amateur football in Singapore, more than 60 domestic workers competed in the five-a-side football competition held on Sundays over seven months. In March 2023, players were awarded medals, individual awards, and the Cup to the applause of crowds of spectators at Charis Turf, a community hub and not-for-profit organisation in Jln Ubi.
“When I first heard about the futsal league, I didn’t believe it,” Ruth says. “I kept thinking ‘Who would be arranging something for domestic helpers like me?’” She continues, “Initially, I wasn’t interested in signing up because I didn’t think it would match the professional level of games I played back home.”
It wasn’t until she saw coverage of the games on social media that she started to take notice. “Something was sparked deep in my heart, and I became intrigued,” she says.
When Ruth signed up as a team captain for the league’s Mizoram FC team, she quickly realised she had her work cut out. “People wanted to take part, but many of them couldn’t play! No-one knew how to shield the ball, take a corner, or defend, and I felt pretty down about it,” she admits.
When she couldn’t make Sunday practice in person, Ruth taught her team the rules over Zoom, drawing out diagrams to help. “It was so hard, but everyone was determined to learn. I’m so proud of how far my players have come!” she says with a grin.
“Having the chance to play football gives helpers a purpose for our day off”
For Rasvinder Bhullar, executive director of D2D Sports, launching the futsal league was a leap of faith. “Female migrant domestic workers are a demographic that many would assume have little interest in football, but this is wrong. Women already have limited opportunities to play football compared with men, so we were thrilled by the pick-up,” he says.
The league was advertised via social media and through word of mouth. To cover referee fees and the pitch it costs each team $50 a game. After such a successful first season, the second Migrant Domestic Workers Futsal League starts in September 2023 with 16 five-a-side teams from Indonesia, India, Philippines, and Myanmar.
In preparation, Phu Sin Hniang, 31, from Myanmar has been spending as many Sundays as possible over the past few months training her team, Lucky Stars. Like Ruth, she also played at professional level in Myanmar’s national team as a defender for over a decade. “When I was young, I trained every day before and after school so I could be the best player. I could run really fast – faster than I can today!” she says, laughing. “My family and friends were very encouraging, but I moved to Singapore 13 years ago as a helper. Getting a good income in Myanmar is not easy.”
While she didn’t play at a professional level, Elina Khenglawt, also from a small village in Mizoram, is another domestic worker training for the second futsal league. “I adored football when I was growing up, but none of my girlfriends played so I joined the boys for fun,” the 28-year-old striker says.
Elina stopped playing six years ago when she came to Singapore to earn money for her family and seven-year-old son back home. “I was so happy when I heard about the first league last year. Right now, my team, Mizoram Girls FC, are training hard every Sunday for the second league with a volunteer coach.”
Each of the young women are incredibly grateful for D2D, the league volunteers, and their employers who are all supportive of their hobby. “Some domestic helpers can’t get time off, are too tired, or there’s not enough time to practice because they have a curfew,” Elina explains. “We’re lucky to have the chance to play as it gives helpers a purpose for our day off.”
Ruth adds that her employer Naraindas Gangaran is her biggest fan. After seeing how talented she was one day by chance, Naraindas bought her a football and encouraged her to practice in the backyard of his landed property. “He is so kind,” Ruth says. “He will often drive me to the pitch on Sunday for practice. Once he bought all the futsal players chicken nuggets and drinks.”
They also cite the mental health benefits of exercise as another reason for their commitment. “Futsal helps me to keep fit and gives me the chance to unwind,” explains Ruth. “I’ve suffered from depression in the past and I couldn’t understand myself but exercise makes me happier.”
Continues Phu Sin, “Being a helper can be tough and if you’re working all the time it can make you stressed. Before the league, l’d spend my Sundays at church, but sport is a good physical release. When you’re on the pitch, you don’t have time to think about your problems.”
There’s also much to be said for the friendships that have been formed on the field. After Sunday practice the teams hang out at a mall, dine together, or head to church. “You may not be the best in every game, but the feeling you get after playing is so good,” says Elina.
Today, Ruth, Elina and Phu Sin are thrilled that they can continue playing football through the Migrant Domestic Workers Futsal League, but their dreams of playing professionally have now taken a backseat.
Elina looks forward to kicking a ball about with her little boy back in Mizoram and hopes to carve out a career as a fitness instructor. Phu Sin plans to become a coach when she returns to Myanmar. As for Ruth, she dreams of running her own business and has one small future request: “When I find a husband, he will have to accept my enthusiasm for football – and he must support Manchester United!”
A message from the futsal players
“If any domestic workers are inspired by this feature, we encourage them to join the league! Even if they haven’t played football before, it’s a great way to destress, get active, and make new friends.”
A word from Rasvinder Bhullar, executive director of D2D Sports
“Looking forward, I hope there will be more sports available for helpers. There is very little for them to do in Singapore, and football brings them connection and a sense of community. The teams are all so appreciative that they have the opportunity to play and this is very heartwarming. People have also approached me about starting volleyball and hockey leagues which is something that would bring a lot of joy.”