In a nation obsessed with cricket, it comes as no surprise that football has been relegated to the status of a ‘poor cousin’ of the gentlemen’s game. Although the formation of the i-league has resulted in investors pumping in much-needed money into the clubs, the scenario of men’s football has improved considerably. The viewer ship of the men’s game has gone up by ten folds with AIFF selling the broadcasting rights of the i-league to major sports network.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the condition of women’s football in our country. The fact that our national women’s team did not get to play even a single international match for more than three years (October 2007- November 2010) is clear evidence of the appalling situation women’s football faces in our nation.
With the Women’s World Cup going on at full swing in Germany, this seems like an ideal time to throw some light on the step-brotherly treatment being dished out at the Indian Women’s football team, by their parent body AIFF.
It all went downhill after a promising start….
Indian women’s football is a living example of the Murphy’s Law. The seed of women’s football in India was planted almost forty years ago in the 1970s. From 1975 till 1991, the administration of the game was in the hands of the Women’s Football Federation of India (WFFI). But unlike the men’s game, they failed to spread the sport to different parts of the country.
In spite of the lack of popularity for their game, the ladies came up with some impressive performances at the continental level in the late 70s and early 80s. They shocked the entire football fraternity by finishing on the podium of the AFC Asian Women’s Championship from 1979 till 1985 in three back-to-back editions; something which even their male counterparts have failed to achieve.
India hosted the ’79 edition of the Asian Women Championships in Calicut, where they fielded two teams along with four other national teams. India A went on to reach the finals but lost to Mulan Taipei.
With the arrival of 80s, the era of television had begun which would go on to change the coverage of world events in the years to come. It was at this time that Kapil Dev lifted the cricket world cup much to the surprise of the entire country and cricket became the darling sport of our nation. After the world cup win, BCCI did an unparalleled promotion of the game and the ratings of cricket matches sky rocketed through the roof, leaving behind football in the lurch.
With cricket enjoying an all-time high, football viewer ship plummeted to an all-time low. WFFI’s marketing of the game was negligible in comparison to the BCCI. In fact, saying that the state of women’s football at that time was shambolic would not be an understatement.
The mismanagement of the football administration prevailed. And despite their impressive display at the Asian level, women’s football in India went into the state of gloom by the end of the eighties.
Women’s football was in the state of despair and urgently needed financial and moral support if it wanted to see the turn of the century. This led AIFF to intervene as they took over the administration of women’s football in their own hands from the WFFI in 1991.
Time and again, the AIFF officials stated that lifting the standard of women’s football to the level of their Asian counterparts was their chief aim but they never backed up their words with actions. AIFF was treating women’s football as an extra burden was a fact which was hidden from no one but it became evident when they failed to sponsor the team’s first foreign trip in 1997 to Germany before the Asian Championships. Eventually, the trip was made possibly with the help of the German Football Association and NRI’s living in Germany.
Although, it was only a 12-day tour, it worked like a charm for the morale of the entire squad. After this tour, Indian team performed exceptionally well in Asian Women Championships of ’97 which was also a World Cup qualifying event. They defeated Guam and Hong Kong with an impressive score line of 10-0 and 3-0 respectively, but lost to Japan 0-1. Due to an inferior goal difference India failed to qualify for the semi-finals (they eventually finished fifth) and with that, they lost a golden chance to finish in the top three – which would have secured a place for them in the 1999 World Cup.
Despite missing out on a place in the World Cup, a twelve-day camp showcased that if the girls are provided with world class facilities at home, they too have the talent within them to challenge even the powerhouses of the football world. Also, this was the closest any football team from India (both men and women) had come to qualifying for the world cup since 1950.
The same pattern continued before the 1998 Asiad as the team was given just one warm up match before the Asian Games kicked off in Bangkok and that too against the Bengal U-16 boy’s team. The women’s team went on to concede thirty six goals in three group matches of the Asian Games which caused WFFI to lock horns with the AIFF due to their lack of interest in the national women’s team.
But the lowest point in their history came in November 2009 when FIFA de-listed the women’s team from FIFA rankings as the girls had not played any international match for over 18 months. The team was listed back in the FIFA rankings at the end of 2010. Sadly though, even after remaining in existence for more than thirty five years, the condition of women’s football has only gone down over the years; chiefly due to the poor management skills and lack of interest of their parent body.
Glimmer of Hope
Seeing that not even iota of progress was being made by the AIFF, Kolkata giants East Bengal and Mohun Bagan jumped into the fray and started India’s first ever Women’s football clubs in 2000-01. Kolkata was the first state to come up with the first women’s football league – “The Calcutta Women’s League” in 1993. Although, like the men’s game, early inroads into the female football were made by Bengal, soon Manipur took over. The women from the north-eastern state went on to win the Senior Women’s National football Championship a record thirteen times out of nineteen.
The bulk of the national squad comprises of players from Manipur, Orissa and Bengal. Some of the legends of Indian women football have played for these three states. Manipur’s Oniam Bembem Devi is the first name (if any) that comes into the mind when one thinks of women football players in India. The veteran midfielder started her international career at an early age of 15 and till date, has scored more than 50 international goals for the country. The “pin up lady of Indian football” continues to remain an inspiration for millions of girls throughout the length and breadth of the country.
Couple of other names who deserve a mention here are Sujata Kar and Alpana Sil, who in February 2000 became the first Indian women players to sign for an international club when they signed a three-month trial contract with German club TSV Crailsheim. Unfortunately, the contract couldn’t be extended as problems occurred in their international transfer clearance.
If they could play more often, we will cheer them on..
The Indian women have shown on numerous occasions that they can reach the pinnacle of the sport if they are provided with the correct grooming. Players like Bemem Devi, Jaanki Kotecha and Chitra Gangadharan have all achieved unparalleled success in the game, against all odds.
We can no longer let the hues and cries of these women go unnoticed. The tour of Germany is an example that if given proper guidance and infrastructure, sky is the limit for our eves. Will the AIFF take notice of this fact or will they turn a blind eye to it, like they have been doing since the last two decades is yet to be seen.
The girls have shown time and again that the talent is there, it’s high time that the AIFF sits up and takes notice of them.