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).

 

 

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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.

Did you see Suzie Bates disappear?

I’ll forgive you if you tell me you don’t who Suzie Bates is. I didn’t know about her (and I call myself a sports journalist) for a long time as well. It’s not this cricket loving nation really cares about women’s version of the sport. She is the New Zealand cricket team’s captain, ODI cricketer of 2013 and perhaps the best in cricket today. Well if that isn’t awesome enough, she also represented her country in Basketball during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

So it was a big moment when Bates was named brand ambassador for Nissan (who are trying to capture the sub-continent market through cricket). And then they came out with this ad.


As you would have seen in the ad, brand ambassador 1 Andre Russel bowls through open car windows to hit the stumps. Impressive. But Indian batsman Rohit Sharma has other plans up the sleeve. He hits the full toss back through the windows for a six. Wow. And we wait to see what Bates will conjure up, after having had to witness all the testesterone-induced machoness fr0m her counterparts. And… the ad ends. Yes, I’ve searched the entire internet to check if a longer version exists but nope. That’s what we do to ‘White Ferns’ champion batswoman – make her sit in the car and watch the men have all the fun. All too normal in sports that I didn’t even find feminist blogs reacting to it.

We need a national league – India’s star Bembem Devi

bembem pic

Often considered India’s best woman football player ever, Oinam Bembem Devi announced her retirement two weeks ago, ending a distinguished career that lasted more than 20 years.

Bembem Devi, a native of Manipur, made her international debut in 1995, when India played against Guam in the Asian Championship. She won the South Asian Games title in 2010 and the SAFF Championship in 2012. Bembem Devi was also the AIFF Woman Footballer of the Year twice.

One of the few Indian woman footballers to have plied their trade in a foreign league, Bembem was signed by New Radiant of Maldives in 2014. Besides leading her team to victory in the League, she was also the highest scorer with six goals.

In an exclusive interview with Sportstar, Bembem Devi talks about her illustrious career and her future plans.

Excerpts:

Question: We all set targets when we begin our careers. Do you have any regrets on not being able to achieve something you wanted to?

Answer: To play in the women’s World Cup was a big dream. We did try our best but could not make it. That is something I could not achieve. We have very talented footballers in the country but that is not enough to build a team. Our training camps are too short. So, when we go to a tournament, our co-ordination is really bad. Most of us don’t even speak the same language.

What can we do about this?

What we really require is a longer training camp every year. If we play together as a team more often, the coordination will start happening. Besides, we need to go for more tournaments, tours and friendly matches to gain more experience. What the women’s team needs is a long-term plan.

Recently AIFF announced a league, similar to the Indian Super League, for women. We haven’t heard anything afterwards…

Even I haven’t heard anything about it. Apparently AIFF hasn’t received any corporate backing for the league. But in my opinion, they should still go ahead with the tournament plans and announce a date. I’m sure, if they show intent from their side, sponsorship will come. Without that, the sponsors will always be doubtful.

What are the challenges that a woman football player faces today?

It isn’t too difficult for young girls today to take up football. Families are very supportive and, just like the boys, they are encouraged. In Manipur, a lot of girls come to me, asking me to teach them football. Hopefully, we can clear some ground and I can start giving some training. I do my bit whenever I get time.

So, what’s wrong then?

Very less opportunities. There is no professional league in the country. So, once these girls are out of their educational institutions, their opportunities are very limited and they depend entirely on the jobs they find. And when you are working, to maintain the same level of intensity is difficult.

Having said that, there are positive signs too. The railway teams from Bihar (East Central Railways), Odisha (East Coast Railways) and Guwahati (North East Frontier Railways) are providing more chances to players. These players have some work in the morning but evenings are free for them to train and keep themselves fit. They are also encouraged to take part in the Nationals. More teams are following suit, and hopefully the trend will continue.

Tell us about your stint in Maldives.

Even though India is ranked higher than Maldives, they have a professional league for women. Ashalata (Devi), Bala (Devi) and I had a great time there. It’s very impressive and they have a lot of facilities for the players. It is an international league with players from Pakistan, Sri Lanka etc.

What is great is that within three years of forming the national team, they started a professional league for women. We are yet to do it in our country.

What are your plans for the future?

I plan to pursue a career in coaching, helping young football players achieve their goals by sharing what I know about the game. I got my AFC ‘C’ Licence in 2010 and the ‘B’ Licence in 2013. I have also had conversations with the AIFF and even a FIFA representative who had visited Manipur in connection with starting an academy. Hopefully, something will happen soon.

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