In the 2016 blockbuster, Dangal, a father yearns for a son who can deliver on his dream of winning gold medals for the country in wrestling. Until it strikes him that a gold medal is a gold medal, and it doesn’t really matter if it is won by a son or a daughter. Sure enough, his two daughters deliver on that dream for him. Notwithstanding the debate about foisting one’s dreams on children, Dangal did a lot of good for women’s sport in a country where attitudes on the subject are entrenched in the past.
As detailed in this piece, it has been quite a struggle for women’s football in India. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) has woken up at last to its potential. But, as with the men’s game, there is a long way to go.
Flying Goalie was created as the means to an end. A first World Cup appearance for India is the dream. As was the case in Dangal, it is worth wondering if it matters whether the men fulfil that dream or the women do. In my lifetime, it is more likelier that it could be the women. And here’s why.
The Indian Women’s team is ranked 13th in Asia and 59th in the world. Seventy of the 187 countries in FIFA’s Women’s Rankings are either provisionally listed for not having played five matches against officially ranked teams or been inactive for more than 18 months and therefore, not ranked. Unlike men’s football, the women’s game has only spread in recent decades, traditionally being dominated by the United States and Germany.
Sad as this state of affairs is, the universal lack of women’s football means that Indian women are only years off catching up with the best teams in Asia, unlike the men who are a couple of decades behind, at least.
In the 1997 Women’s Asian Cup, India came close to qualifying for the 1999 World Cup. Only an inferior goal difference meant that they would not qualify for the semifinals, with World Cup places guaranteed for the top three teams from that tournament. That near miss should have been the trigger for further development, but results went the other way instead and in less than a decade, even qualification for the Asian Cup had become a big ask. India’s last appearance in that tournament was in 2003.
Such is the glacial pace at which the game has grown that India were ranked 56th when the women’s ranking was instituted in 2003 and have remained in and around that position since. Even after they were delisted from the rankings for nearly a year in 2009, they re-entered only five places below where they had left it.
Given that only a fistful of countries have a structured ecosystem in place (most Asian countries are beset with the same problems as India), there is a huge opportunity to make a play for World Cup qualification. The current rules allow Asia five slots at the World Cup, and we’re ranked 13th in the continent. It is not an impossible ask.
What can be done? A lot. It is easy to lay the blame at the doors of administrators and while they have been a part of the problem for a long time, the AIFF are more invested now. Others have to step up to the plate too.
The biggest obstacle is societal. Thirty million girls or women play football globally. But in many countries, they are not allowed to. Even in football crazy countries like Brazil, women face a lot of challenges. Marta, the first female superstar in the sport, has spoken publicly about the pressures she faced from family and outside. She had to move to Sweden at the age of 18 to further her career.
The influences and opportunities between the ages of six and twelve are crucial in football. The onus is on a child’s support group to create an atmosphere where her talent can blossom. I am a big advocate for mixed-gender participation in sport, especially in the formative years. We have to create a safe ecosystem in which girls can play with boys leading upto and through the U14, U17 and U19 levels. Late last year, Tanvie Hans, the ex-Tottenham and Fulham player who harbours hopes of playing for the country, blazed a trail of sorts by becoming the first woman to play in a men’s league in India. Hopefully, youth leagues and schools across the country were paying notice. They need to encourage more girls to participate. 48% of all football players in the US are girls. The results are there for everyone to see.
The AIFF has started sending boys at age group levels on exposure trips. The U16 team is currently on a month long tour of Hong Kong and Spain. The same needs to be replicated with the girls and senior women’s team too.
Finally, the profile of the Indian Women’s League (IWL), which kicks off tomorrow, should improve. The inaugural edition last year reached 8.83 million people on AIFF’s Facebook page. The matches were streamed live and had an average viewership of 40,000 per match. When more people tune in to watch or even better, turn up at stadiums, a compelling case is made for an appearance on television.
Is this all that needs to be done? Of course not. There are a hundred other things that we should focus on. But, can we at least get started? The Asian Cup by 2026 and the World Cup in 2031 should be the target but it will not happen by itself.