17-year-old forward Sumati Kumari had the Indian women’s football world at her feet when she put the ball in the net an incredible 17 times in five games during the Junior Girls' National Football Championship 2019-20.
As it would do for any youngster coming through the ranks, the achievement proved to be the boost of confidence that she needed. In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, Sumati had this to say about her breakout moment:
"Scoring that many goals in 5 matches made me believe that I could do something here and made me much more confident in my abilities."
Plenty has changed since then, of course. The teenager now finds herself in Thomas Dennerby’s preparatory camp ahead of the 2022 AFC Women’s Asian Cup.
Having worked with the 62-year-old Swede at the under-17 level, Sumati took to Dennerby's methods quite quickly. According to the 17-year-old, the rest of the players also caught on to Dennerby's ways after a little difficulty at the start.
"I have worked with Thomas sir at the under-17 level and so I haven’t had too much trouble understanding him," Sumati said. "The other players took a little time to understand his methods but since everyone understands English, there is no problem. Everyone understands."
"I feel our team can do something for India" - Sumati Kumari
The next assignment for Sumati and the rest of the Indian women’s national team is the Asian Cup. The tournament is slated to begin on 20 January next year, with India playing hosts.
Being hosts guarantees a ninth appearance for the Blue Tigresses at the quadrennial event. While a repeat of their runner-up finish from 1979 and 1983 (their best showings so far) may sound a little far-fetched, Sumati is confident of a good showing from the squad.
"It is happening in India, so it is an advantage for the Indian team," the prodigy said. "Now in the remaining time, we are training really hard under Thomas (Dennerby) sir. I feel our team can do something for India."
The biggest stumbling block in India’s preparations for the upcoming tournament, of course, has been the COVID-19 pandemic. Games have been hard to come by for the squad, which could be detrimental to their chances.
As anyone that understands sport would tell you, there’s nothing quite like match practice.
Sumati herself was robbed of what would have been a historic moment. She was a part of the first Indian women’s team to take part in the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, which was scheduled to take place in India last year. But we all know how that turned out.
Although the team are all set to travel to the UAE on 30 September, and then to Bahrain and possibly Sweden for a string of friendlies, Sumati realizes how much of an impact the lack of playing time has had.
"Last year, we have mostly been at home," she said. "Because of that we haven’t been able to practice, and our levels have dipped."
Sumati Kumari just wants to play for India
For someone whose love story with the sport began as a 12-year-old in 2016, Sumati has achieved a lot in a short span of time. But the forward wants to remain grounded, and focus on taking things one step at a time.
"I am studying right now, and I will think about this after studying," she said. "For now, I just want to play for India."
Like any young footballer, Sumati has her own heroes. Speaking of the footballers that she looks up to, Sumati mentioned a couple of talented Indians she's had the privilege of watching.
"From our team, midfielder Indumathi di plays really well and I would like to play like her," the teenager said. "I also watch Bala di and I get inspired by her to work harder and reach her level or higher. I too want to play abroad just like Bala di has."
At 17, Sumati is only at the beginning of what is hopefully a long career. And while she is taking things slowly right now, the forward does wish to play in the World Cup one day - as a tribute to her mother, who she lost while away on international duty in Bhutan.
Whether that particular dream comes true remains to be seen, but the well-wishers of Indian football would certainly hope that it does.