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The government-run school is the only one in Shahabad, and it shares a wall with the hockey academy. Here, the hockey-playing girls are the cool kids. “Rani didi” is the hero the kids look up to, and there’s a picture of her in a Team India jersey in the principal’s room, hung higher than the plaque with the school toppers’ names.

Coach Baldev Singh doesn’t like media attention. He looks at us with a healthy measure of suspicion. The 62-year Dronacharya awardee runs the training academy like a military boot camp. A former player and men’s national team coach, he founded this academy and has run it since the mid-’80s. In Shahabad, this man has earned the respect reserved for the gods. This is because his efforts have turned these girls into celebrated heroes.
Rani Rampal, India’s ace striker, lives in one of the most modest houses in the town. It’s just a room, really. and it is full of trophies, medals and badges that Rani has won at tournaments all over the world. Most of the medals hang off a portrait of Rani’s late grandfather who encouraged her to play. Right below it is a photograph of Rani with her childhood icon, Argentine midfielder Luciana Aymar. This wall is a microcosm of the Shahabad story.

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