In 2015, goalkeeper Aditi Chauhan became the first Indian woman to play English league football when she played for West Ham Ladies in an FA Women’s Premier League game against Coventry United. The India international was noticed while representing Loughborough University where she was completing an MSc in Sports Management, and West Ham took her on as a late addition to the squad.
The news created ripples for a day or two on social media. Few people were aware that India even had a women’s national team, and for a player to make the seemingly impossible transition to European football, well, it made people take notice. Never mind that West Ham Ladies were in the third tier of English football. For a nation starved of success in the sport, we would take anything that came our way, as we had with Bhaichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri’s stints abroad.
Aditi’s stint was cut short by the expiration of her student visa and she had to return to India, where a national league did not exist. A trying few months followed and only the offer of a part time job in London by her alma mater allowed her to return to West Ham in late 2016.
Aditi was one of the lucky ones. Women looking for a pathway in professional football found none in the country. The best player India has ever produced, Oinam Bembem Devi, represented India for 21 years, yet ended her career with only 85 caps. Matches for the national team were few and far between, organised whenever someone at the national federation woke up from a deep slumber. In fact, in 2009, FIFA delisted the Indian team from the rankings for being inactive for over 18 months. A few matches were hastily arranged, highlighting the reactiveness rather than proactiveness that plague our sporting ecosystems.
Domestic tournaments are in premium. The national football championship runs for two weeks every year. Add to that the National Games, which may or may not take place as planned. Players are left to fend for themselves and play local tournaments in their states or give up on the game. Many choose the latter.
To think that it had started so well.
Much like their male counterparts, the women’s game in India had a head start over a lot of Asian countries. The Women’s Football Federation of India (WFFI) was set up in 1975 and the early signs were good. India performed admirably in the 1979, 1981 and 1983 editions of the Asian Women’s Championship, then organised by the Asian Ladies Football Confederation (ALFC). Given that the ALFC was not recognised by FIFA or the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) at the time, the tournament did not attract a lot of teams. However, this should not detract from the achievements of those squads. Those two runners-up and solitary third place finishes are the only blips for India in the continental success radar, men or women, in half a century.
Cricket took off in the country after the 1983 World Cup win, to the detriment of every other sport, and women’s football was no exception. Faced with flagging interest, the WFFI merged with the All India Football Federation (AIFF) in 1991. The Senior Women’s National Football Championship was instituted the same year but nothing changed on the ground.
Things seemed to have picked up a little in 2016 when the AIFF announced the formation of the Indian Women’s League (IWL). The ISL and I-League teams were invited to enter teams into the fray. Only FC Pune City and Aizawl FC obliged. Nevertheless, after a preliminary qualifying round, six teams played over two weeks to determine the identity of India’s first league champions. Eastern Sporting Union from Manipur, that hotbed of women’s football, unsurprisingly took the title.
The second season was supposed to be bigger and better. Thirteen teams took part in the preliminary round compared to ten the previous year. The ISL and I-League teams made assurances of participation in the final round. And in a story we only know too well, they pulled the plug a few weeks back, leaving the AIFF and IWL in limbo.
To be fair to the AIFF, after decades of apathy, they seem to have finally woken up to the potential women’s football offers. The game has grown across the world and the 2015 Women’s World Cup attracted 750 million television viewers, making it the second most watched FIFA competition after the men’s World Cup. There is a tremendous opportunity there if we are willing to grab it. The pullout of ISL and I-League teams this year because of ‘costs involved’ suggest that we are not.
The story of Indian football in a nutshell.
Addendum – Since this piece was written, the AIFF announced the lineup for the second edition of the IWL. The league will start on March 25th at Shillong. Gokulam Kerala FC from the I-League have decided to field a team. To make up for the shortfall of ISL and I-League teams, KRYHPSA, India Rush Soccer Club, Sethu FC and Indira Gandhi Academy for Sports & Education from the preliminary round have been added to the fray. The original qualifiers, Eastern Sporting Union and Rising Student Club make up the rest of the league.