Meet the Indian female goalie fighting deportation to keep playing for West Ham

Aditi Chauhan, West Ham's goalkeeper
Aditi Chauhan, West Ham's goalkeeper Credit: Shekhar Bhatia

Aditi Chauhan was just 22-years-old when she made history by becoming the first woman from the Indian national football team to play in the English league.

But four months on she might have to leave her spot with the West Ham Ladies to go back to India.

It’s all down to visa problems. Chauhan, now 23, initially came to the UK last year on a student visa while she did a masters in sports management at Loughborough University. Throughout her course, she began getting in touch with clubs in the women’s leagues.

She had a trial with Millwall Lionesses, a second division club, but was unable to join due to FA rules which state that a player on a student visa cannot join a club in the top two tiers of women’s football.

It meant she ended up signing a one-year deal with third division team, West Ham United Ladies.

"I don’t want to stop playing football. It doesn’t matter where I go – I just want to play football.”
Aditi Chauhan

Her student visa is now expiring so the team planned to sponsor her for a work visa. But Chauhan, currently West Ham's goalkeeper, can’t apply for a work visa through West Ham because the club is in the third tier and classed as semi-professional.

“There’s nothing to do but laugh at it,” says Chauhan, West Ham’s good-naturedly. “I wasn’t allowed to play in the first or second division at first, but now I’m not allowed to play in any divisions but those. It’s just ridiculous and stupid.”

It’s also a problem she can’t imagine happening to a male footballer in her position.

“The men’s clubs have more money and they can afford to sponsor visas,” she says. “I don’t think they have problems like this, but for women footballers it’s just a bit more difficult. I’ve never heard of a male footballer in my situation.

“The rules are the same for both gender, but because financially it might be a bigger issues for women’s clubs, that’s when it becomes more difficult. The women’s clubs aren’t exactly very rich. Financially it can be a burden for them.”

Aditi Chauhan in the goal Credit: Shekhar Bhatia

For now Chauhan is still hoping that West Ham will be able to sort out a visa for her, such as an exceptional talent visa or a temporary worker visa, and she says the management is being very supportive. But if it doesn’t work out, she’ll have to go home to India where she plays on the international women’s team.

“It’s difficult for me to realise I might have to go back and leave my playing career in the UK. I was having a good time here and I’m improving with every game. I feel like I can do a lot better and I have the potential to still improve a lot more.  I’m trying to keep my fingers crossed and be positive.

“If I do have to go back, I’ll apply for a visa from there. But if nothing works out, I’ll probably go to some other country like Australia and carry on playing football there. I don’t want to stop playing football. It doesn’t matter where I go – I just want to play football.”

"I don’t think male footballer have problems like this, but for women footballers it’s just a bit more difficult."
Aditi Chauhan

Chauhan has been playing for the last seven or eight years. She started whilst in India and said she initially had to deal with a lot of disapproval – even from within her family. “When I told my parents I wanted to play, they were very surprised and apprehensive. At that point no one in India had heard of women’s football.

“My dad wanted me to take up an individual sport if I was going to have a sporting career, but I’d fallen in love with game by then. Later when he saw me play and saw my achievements, he was extremely supportive.”

It’s no wonder that people have compared Chauhan’s story to the hit musical and film Bend It Like Beckham, but she says it was probably harder for her than the protagonist because she was in India where it’s even more unusual for women to play football.

“In India a lot of girls play football now but it’s at an amateur level. No one really thought I’d make it this far and at this level. I’ve had a lot of people who wanted to pull me down but thankfully I have got some very positive people in my life who I’m very close to. They basically helped me achieve this level.”

It’s those same people who are now supporting Chauhan in her visa battle. Her brother Aaditya has started a petition from India where he’s petitioning the Indian government to help give her a work visa.

He’s also asking for financial support for her efforts and “wishes from all Indians so that she can continue her journey and explore the path that has never been explored before and motivate thousands of females in India to take up the beautiful game”.

That’s something Chauhan is already working on. Last week she was awarded the Asian woman footballer award at Wembley. Subsequently her story has been covered in the Indian media, something that's helping to spread the word about women’s football.

She hopes that one day women’s football in India will be as developed and respected as it is here in the UK and the US – the country that took home this year’s Women’s World Cup. “Men’s football has a lot more followers in India but we don’t even have a league for women footballers.

“Without a league the fans don’t really have anything to look forward to. It’s quite difficult. I’d love to see a league there one day so I could play there, but I also love the UK. I want to play in the women’s first division one day. That’s what I’m hoping for.”