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.
“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.
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.