IWL — A much-needed leap for women’s football

 

When All India Football Federation (AIFF) announced the launch of the first-ever Indian Women’s League to develop women’s football in the country, it was greeted with a sigh of relief along with the excitement.

After years of false promises and missing out on talented footballers due to lack of opportunities, the Indian football federation has finally put together a league for the eves, albeit a small, two-week tournament with all the matches played at the Dr.Ambedkar stadium in Delhi.

Indian women, despite occupying a respectable 54th place in the FIFA rankings and outperforming their male counterparts for years, had no regular league such as the I-League and Indian Super League for men, until now.

Their playing time was often limited to National championships and SAFF competitions, after which the onus was on the player to maintain the fitness required for playing at the top level. This forced many stars, including former AIFF player of the year (2013) Oinam Bembem Devi, who is the captain of Eastern Sporting Union in the IWL, to move out of the country in search of opportunities. Bembem, in 2014, joined New Radiant SC in Maldives — a country ranked lower than India — to become the first Indian woman to play for a professional foreign club. National team goalkeeper Aditi Chauhan shifted to London in 2015 and still plays for West Ham United.

It is not like there is a shortage of examples within the country to show how focused efforts for the women’s game can reap great benefits. Manipur has set the benchmark with women’s football by conducting intra-state competitions on a regular basis. The state has also won 17 Indian Women’s football Championship since the tournament’s inception in 1991-92.

Odisha is another state that has seen rapid progress in women’s football. The state football association, in partnership with SAI (Sports Authority of India), have been promoting the game and as result Odisha has become formidable force in the women’s game. The Kalinga stadium in Bhubaneswar and Barbati stadium in Cuttack are breeding grounds for women footballers in the country and have produced top-class players such as the 2016 AIFF women’s player of the year Sasmita Malik.

A SMALL YET SIGNIFICANT STEP

One can argue that the logic behind AIFF and IMG-Reliance’s decision to start the league is an attempt to cash in on the ever-growing popularity of the sport. After all, a two-week long league does not significantly increase the number of playing days for the women footballers. The organisers have failed to find a TV broadcaster for the event which will hamper its reach and appeal. No prize money has been announced for the winners either. Which all points to one big question — what was the need to start such a disorganised league in a hurry?

Yet, after repeated failed attempts to attract sponsors to kick-start a women’s league, the decision by AIFF to go ahead with the event, shows a real intention to improve the game. Perhaps the reason sponsors stayed away, despite the success of Indian Super League, was the lack of clarity in AIFF’s roadmap for the women’s game.

Now that AIFF has shown its intent, sponsorship and corporate interest will hopefully follow — something which will be essential to sustain the league in the long run.

A professional contract will also reduce, if not remove, players’ financial dependability on other jobs to sustain their lives. National team captain Ngangom Bala Devi is a police constable with the Manipur Police department and commitment such as these surely hinder a player’s growth.

The league, which will only feature Indian players, will also be a great platform for young footballers to make a mark at the top level. The average age of the Indian team that won the 2016 SAFF women’s championship was less than 25, which means the best is yet to come for most footballers in the team.

ONE STRIDE AT A TIME

During the inauguration ceremony for IWL, AIFF president said, “Our women’s team is ranked 54 in the world which is higher than the men’s ranking of 129 which means that for the upcoming FIFA women’s World Cup in 2019, if we put in the right effort our women’s team will have an outside chance of qualifying for the World Cup before the men.”

While the World Cup should be the holy grail for the Indian team, it is important that the women’s side takes it one step at a time and first aim to establish itself as a top-five team in Asia.  Indian women have dominated the South Asian region in the past years and is unbeaten in its last 19 matches but is currently ranked 12th in AFC (Asian Football Confederation).

[Ref: http://www.fifa.com/fifa-world-ranking/ranking-table/women/afc.html]

Five out of 24 slots in the 2015 FIFA women’s world cup went to AFC teams but to reach the top-five India must significantly improve its performances at the AFC Women’s  Asian Cup. Indian women haven’t qualified for the tournament since 2003 and the last time it went past the group stages was in 1983.

Japan, Australia, China and Jordan have been given automatic qualificiation for the 2018 edition after being the top three sides in the 2014 Women’s Asian Cup and the host respectively. India’s quest for a place in the other four slots will begin in April this year when it plays South Korea and Uzbekistan. Hong Kong and group-stage host North Korea are the other two teams in India’s pool.

It is AIFF’s responsibility to ensure the momentum gained by the IWL is utilised to go beyond the ‘big fish in a small pond’ mentality and ensure the women play more friendlies and tournaments against tougher ranked opposition.

The teams: FC Alakhpura (Haryana), Jeppiaar Institute of Technology FC (Puducherry), Aizawl FC (Mizoram), FC Pune City (Maharashtra), Rising Student Club (Odisha), Eastern Sporting Union (Manipur).

 

 

Perks of watching Sevilla v Real Madrid on a slow internet connection

Contrary to popular perceptions, change is not the only thing permanent on planet Earth. If history is anything to go by, and I’ve been hearing a lot about it around the city due to the Jallikattu ban, human beings have been frustrated since time immemorial.

Back in the stone ages we were upset about not gathering enough food while today we face the challenges and emotional trauma of bad internet connections. On Sunday night, an over-sized football fan (read – me), braved post-operative instructions, and dived into the deep waters of the internet to find a free steaming link for Real Madrid’s trip to Sevilla

Beneath penis enlargement programs and lonely neighbourhood women, I did find a working link but alas, my internet connection was too damn slow to buffer the match seamlessly. I decided to brave it out because, you see, Real Madrid, a team I dislike unless it is playing Barcelona, was on a historic run (40 games unbeaten) and Sevilla, a team I have a good rapport with having managed it for years in FIFA and PES, had recently held the Los Blancos to an entertaining 3-3 draw.

Tactically, it had all the billings of a cracker. And the starting line-up confirmed it. Real Madrid, clearly worried about the previous encounter, chose for a cautious 3-5-2 approach (yes the same formation Italy and Wales used in EURO 2016), with Marcelo and Carvajal acting as wing-backs. This was a team, unbeaten since Donald Trump became a household name, changing its normal shape ( a 4-3-3) because it was vary of the opposition. If there’s anything such as a mental high, Jorge Sampaoli would have certainly felt it seeing the starting line-up. That is, unless, he was distracted by Sergio Ramos’ respect for his balls.

 

Good thing about being in the 21st century is that for every frustration there is a hyper orientalized English movie to calm you down. So I channeled my inner Master Shifu and found a fun way to kill my time during the buffer breaks — screenshots and analysis. I ended up taking way more than I should have in a dull 2-1 victory for Sevilla but I’m going to use some to explain some key points, which according to me, were the highlights of the game.

PRESSING AND COUNTER PRESSING

One thing that did not change was how Sampaoli approached the game. This Sevilla side works on pressing hard and then attacking through the flanks, something which Zidane had hoped to stifle with the change of formation.

The wing-backs, with the aid of the two midfielders in the respective side, were able to halt Sevilla’s progress through the flanks. The ever-lively Vitolo and Nasri were taken out of the game as shown by the screenshots below.

madrid-pressing-3

Carvajal, Modric and Casemiro form a triangle to prevent Sevilla’s attack through the left flank.

Even when the wingers cut inside, Sevilla opted not to switch flanks, where it had a numerical advantage, and instead opted for the safer pass back to either N’Zonzi or Iborra in the central midfield.

madrid-pressing-2

Madrid’s central midfielders hunt down the players trying to cut in

Zidane was winning the battle of pressing in the  defensive half, but Madrid’s lack of man in the attacking half meant all Sevilla players needed to do was keep their heads still.

Madrid’s lack of adventure and Sevilla’s discipline meant a dead spectacle for the fans. The Los Blancos were terribly direct and super slow in their counter attacks, almost hoping Sevilla will make a mistake. Which it did in a rush-of-blood-to-the-head moment and conceded a penalty for Ronaldo to score.

Not so surprisingly, for both teams, it was the counter pressing, bombarding full-backs pressing high in the opposition half, which opened up up chances for both teams.

This 21st minute pressing from Marcelo finally forcing the keeper to kick the ball outside play.

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Sevilla’s goal also came via counter pressing though the strategy was deployed only because there was just a few minutes remaining and Real Madrid was already looking happy with the point.

Sevilla outnumbered Real in a throw and launched a scathing attack on the left to feed Jovetic who curled past the outstretched arms of Navas to win the game for his team and end Real’s dream run.

sevilla-high-pressing

jovetic-scores

RAMOS IS WORLD’S BEST DEFENDER

If you have been following my blog (please say yes) you will all know how much I love Leonardo Bonucci. He is the epitome of ball-playing central defenders who have come to dominate football today so when I say Sergio Ramos might be better, I mean it.

Let me get this straight. I’m not a fan of the chap otherwise and would like him to be on the losing side always (for some weird reason). Yet, Ramos is everything a central defender should be (kudos to Mourinho who moved him from RB to CB) — fast, brilliant in the air, and exceptional tackling. Yet, that’s just 30% of his overall abilities. The defender is an attacking threat from all the set pieces and has a knack of producing the goals when its needed. Unfortunately he scored in the wrong end against Sevilla

Zidane used Ramos as a ‘libero’ or a sweeper in the match (read my piece on David Luiz to know more about the role). His was the starting point of most attacks for Madrid, spraying balls to wingers, while also preventing Sevilla to control the second third of Real Madrid’s half.

luiz-heat-map

Here’s heatmap proof (via whoscored) of Ramos’ dominance in the region. Certainly an option for Zidane to try in important matches (maybe even an El Clasico).

WHAT TACTICAL MASTERCLASS?

We (yes me included) have a tendency to hype things, especially when there is an upset involved. A lot of publications I generally read called Sevilla’s victory as a tactical masterclass. I didn’t think it really was. It was at best an ordinary match, two sides with too much respect for each other, playing a waiting game. I’m not denying that requires great patience and team-work, but it never looked like Jorge Sampaoli had unearthed some master plan to beat Madrid — the team was simply better drilled and focused.

Real Madrid will easily recover from the victory, but Zidane’s maturity as a tactician was questioned in the match. What was the need to leave a successful 4-3-3 ? Ronaldo and Benzema missed chances to finish off the game and extra presence in the attacking half might have sealed the victory for the travelling side.

 

What Ballon Sur Bitume can teach Indian football

When I was presented the task of reviewing a documentary on French street football, the first question that popped up in my head was a resounding ‘why?’

Why was there a need to review a sports film in India? Especially by a publication like ours — we didn’t review Ronaldo, nor did we review Pele. We even overcame peer pressure and stayed away from Dangal.

Finding the context, therefore, became utmost priority, as I watched the film on Youtube.

Ballon Sur Bitume, which translates as concrete football, is a 50-minute documentary on the street football culture of France, packaged into modules of nostalgia, with the likes of Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez and PSG’s Serge Aurier, who have roots in Paris’ suburbs (Los banlieues), narrating their rags-to-riches stories.
While the film highlights the difficulties of growing up in the suburbs — lack of money is a common thread in every footballer’s recollection — it is anything but a fetishisation of poverty, because street football, to the Parisian suburbs, is a mode of expression. Just like graffiti art or rap music is. An immediate escape from the reality that cloud their lives. To be successful at it was to escape the clutches of poverty. It wasn’t just a game for the young Benatias and Mendys — it was their ticket to another life.

The film is, very loudly and clearly, the celebration of this freedom. Freedom of the few, who braved it out in the concretes, honed their skills under the tropical sun, to become world renowned footballers today.

To understand street football it is mandatory to understand the socio-economic backwardness of these suburbs. Many of its inhabitants are immigrants — Benatia is Moroccan, Aurier is from Ivory Coast, and Mahrez plays for Algeria — therefore, the game is an emotional outlet to a set of people struggling to find a home away from home.

Much like the Samba footballers from Brazil, the players who have roots in the Los banlieues have a distinct style – agility, quick feet, ball control, and most importantly a street spirit to win. Like Mahrez says in the film, these players are used to cut-throat pressure, having played in front of aggressive fans while growing up.

The film also delves into the relationship street football has with various with forms of music, dance, and fashion. Style is an element of street football, where restrictions and team rules go for a toss. If you are losing, lose in style. The idea to ALWAYS make a statement.

Interwoven with stunning shots and apt background music, the film on France’s street football is a cinematic experience on its own. The politics of the filmmakers are also quite clear — a ‘fly on the wall’ merely observing the happenings , with no God-like voice-overs influencing the story.

The film finds a special relevance in India or other countries where stifling alternate forms of expression, by tagging it anti-institutional/anti-society/anti-national, continue to be the norm. By criminalizing these counter-cultures, the country is merely cutting its own limbs of progress.

Take the example of Sevens football — a popular 7-a-side football game that is widely popular in North Kerala collectively called the Malabar. A place rich in history — from being one of the world’s first metropolitan cultures due to early century trades with the Arabs to being the first to strongly revolt against the British rule. The region, especially the district of Malappuram, is one of the socio-economically backward parts of Kerala.

There are multiple stories regarding the origins of the game yet the most popular theory involves the flora and fauna of Malappuram ( which means ‘on top of mountains’ in Malayalam). The mountainous terrain meant plains the size of a football ground were a premium. So every summer season, after the paddy was yielded, people would gather in the fields to celebrate the harvest by playing football in the rectangular plots (considerably smaller than traditional football fields) where seven-a-side seemed just about ideal.

The game’s popularity is also connected to the Gulf exodus in the 1970s, when people from the region went the Middle-East to make a fortune. When they came back, they brought back wealth, and lavishly spent it on football tournaments.

Yet this form of game, which has its roots deep into the culture of the land, has not been accepted by the official football bodies. Players are banned from playing the sevens game even at a time when Kerala’s football is at all-time low. Why? The reasons Kerala Football Association gives certainly don’t make sense– shorter fields will affect the player’s growth as a footballer, no system to take care of medical requirements etc. But they are talking as if 11s opportunities for footballers in the state are plenty when the truth is quite the opposite.

What if Brazil and France had opted the same stance? Would we have seen a Ronaldinho (the legend himself admitted how much Futsal influenced his game when he came to Chennai) or a Thierry Henry?  After an impressive debut season, Premier Futsal seems to have kicked the bucket after the AIFF went all guns blazing against it.

The successful countries identified the favelas and the streets as potential scouting grounds. Regions with similar socio-economic climate as most parts of India.

gally-cricket

Youngsters play cricket at dhobi ghat in Mumbai

In a time when efforts have been amplified to make India a multi-sporting nation, it is important to recognize the need for sports to become part of its identity. Just like cricket has. No country can succeed if it sees sports as an alien entity — something not borne from within its culture. With the 1983 World Cup, the advent of Doordarshan and the success of Sachin Tendulkar, India found an identity, a voice to shout at the world, in cricket. Today, kids play cricket in railway tracks and even in narrow lanes of slums. Yet more endemic sports such as Hockey, Kabaddi, or football lost the plot due to bad luck and mismanagement.

Why hasn’t USA men’s soccer reached top levels regardless of plush infrastructure, scholarships and state interest? The answer, as always, lies in the streets. In USA, kids take up basketball or baseball when they grow up. Like how football was a mode of expression for immigrants in France, basketball became closely intertwined with African-American empowerment. Football, or soccer as they call it, still remains something confined to training grounds and state-of-the-art gyms. As long as soccer stays away from the streets, the game will fail to attract the best athletes in the country, who are often hidden in the corners of these socio-economically backward suburbs.

While the India’s football association has been making commendable strides to improve the game, it has often come at the cost of cutting ties with traditional football cultures, be it in Goa or Kerala. Corporatization and professionalism are genuine needs for the game in India today, but as Ballon Sur Bitume shouts out, it should go hand-in-hand with history and existing cultural norms.

Interesting Reads:

  1. “Why America doesn’t like soccer, and how that can be changed”, TIME MAGAZINE, June 12, 2014
  2. “AIFF-FIFA show red card to Goa”, Rahul Bali, Goal.com
  3. “Why is Soccer Less Popular in the U.S.? By Kelsey Ontko, Julia Fogleman, and Lucas Nevola.

Sasmita Malik — winging her way to glory

Away from the hullabaloo of league mergers and world rankings, an Indian team is slowly, yet efficiently, etching a name for itself in the world of football. The Indian women’s football team, helmed by coach Sajid Dar, has reached yet another SAFF women’s championship final — a tournament it has completely dominated, winning all three previous editions.

One of India’s shining stars in the tournament so far has been Sasmita Malik. The 27-year-old winger’s pace and trickery on the left flank has been a constant threat to the rival defenders. She has already scored two goals in the competition.

Sasmita, a product of the Bhubaneswar Sports Hostel, has been a part of the senior National team since 2007, when she made her debut against Iran.

Sasmita Malik (right) of India flits past Anita Basnet of Nepal in the final of the South Asian Games in February last year. At the SAFF Championship, Sasmita has been the pick of the Indian players.   –M. Moorthy

“I was always interested in football. I never bothered to venture into another game. I got my admission in the (Bhubaneswar Sports) hostel through athletics, but my coach told me to concentrate on football and try to make it to the National team,” said Sasmita, about her entry into football.

Born in Aloha, a small village in Kendrapara district of Odisha, Sasmita’s journey to becoming the AIFF Player of the Year in 2016 was anything but easy. “When I was in Standard IV, there was an all India football tournament in our village, which I had gone to see with my father. I saw people running around and kicking the ball, so I thought to myself, ‘I can also do that’. I asked my father if I could, and he readily agreed,” recollected Sasmita.

“Then, we heard an announcement saying that chairman Devendra Sharma (now MLA) wants to provide necessary kit to anyone who wants to pursue football or cricket. I enrolled but when we got home, my relatives were upset. ‘Girls don’t go to play’, they said, and even though my father supported me, since it was a joint family, there were a lot of relatives who strongly objected.

“Thankfully, my brother, who was staying away from the family to pursue his studies, came back to our village and informed everyone that a lot of women play the game these days. He insisted that I should be given a chance,” she added.

READ: ‘We need to play more tournaments,’ says Bembem Devi

Much of the effort that has gone into improving the game in the country recently, such as the introduction of the Indian Super League, has been for men’s football. In the absence of a proper league, most women footballers, including players such as Bala Devi and Aditi Chauhan, were forced to go abroad for regular playing opportunities. However, Sasmita, who has now completed a decade with the senior team, is happy with the All India Football Federation’s roadmap for the sport.

“We have a league starting at the end of January. That will be great for all of us. You can see that the AIFF is doing everything in its capacity to improve the game, as a result of which, there are players popping up from all parts of the country. Slowly we will start reaping the benefits of the league,” said Sasmita, who is the second player from Odisha — after Shradhanjali Samantray — to have captained the Indian team.

“There is a feeling in this country that we can achieve something at the world level. You can see that the National Championships have become really competitive. Everyone is more focused and professional,” said Sasmita.

India overcame Nepal, a strong favourite to win the tournament, 3-1 in the semifinals to set up a clash with Bangladesh in the final, to be played at the Kanchenjunga Stadium in Siliguri. Even though the Blues struggled to break the Bangla defence in the group stages, Sasmita is confident of a more positive result on Wednesday.

“We dominated the match against Bangladesh and were quite unlucky not to win. Its defence was blocking everything that came its way, with the ’keeper also in fine form. Football can be like that some days. But coach Dar, who has been phenomenal in binding the team together, has given us specific instructions, and we will go into the final quietly confident that we can win,” Sasmita concluded.