When Anita Kumari made a forward run against Brazil in India’s last match at the 2022 FIFA U-17 World Cup, she had one special fan watching from the stands. The restless eyes of her mother, Asha Devi, were on the field as Anita’s coach, Anand Gope, pointed at her.
“There she is, Gyarah number (No. 11),” he said to the smiling mother.
For Anita and the 20 other Indian girls in the U-17 team, it was their first experience of playing in a FIFA women’s tournament. “This is a historic moment for our girls [to be part of it] and at that level, [that] they are getting an opportunity to play is a big thing in itself,” Shaji Prabhakaran, general secretary, All India Football Federation (AIFF), told Sportstar.
“This should encourage more participation at the grassroots and these girls will get the encouragement to be better in future. This would only add to the growth of women’s football in India. A lot of girls will try to dream big after seeing Indian women play at this level.”
The World Cup has also inspired community engagement: about 1,20,000 school children witnessed the tournament at the three stadiums — the Kalinga Stadium, the Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, and the DY Patil Stadium.
Thousands of them filled up stands, singing ‘Vande Mataram’ and ‘Hum honge Kamayab’ (We shall Overcome).
Nandini Arora, one of the project directors of the tournament, said, “Through this tournament, we want to promote the ideas of equality and inclusion. We want these boys and girls to come and see how well these young women can play.”
Role models in football
The United States of America on its arrival for the World Cup had distributed football gear to young aspiring women footballers from Odisha. “I’m another Indian who is out here living my dreams,” said Mia Bhuta, the only player of Indian descent in the American team. “I want them to believe in themselves just as much as I do. I’ve seen how much potential so many of these young girls have, so I just want to do whatever I can.”
Creating role models for women’s football has more examples close to home as well.
Anita’s younger sister, Vinita, has taken up the sport along with several girls from her village, Charihujur. “Anita’s elder sister was married very young, maybe when she was hardly 19. But Anita says she will create a career in football and then settle,” says Asha Devi.
Astam Oraon, the team’s captain, finally has a road connecting her house to the main road close to her village in the Gumla district of Jharkhand. The World Cup may not have been an exhibition of free-flowing and optimistic football from the host, but it may just be the foundation for the development of the sport among girls — not just in India, but around the world.
“The biggest positive takeaway will be — our girls did not hesitate to play against big opponents like USA, Morocco and Brazil and we saw the team spirit they have from whistle to whistle,” former India captain Oinam Bembem Devi told the AIFF website.
When Tanzania made history after qualifying for the U-17 Women’s World Cup, the whole team was invited to the Parliament for the first time — a symbol of the power football can use to empower women.
Ripples beyond social impact
The FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup has had ripples beyond its social impact on women’s football. Three matches, all losses and with just as many shots on targets later, India will look to strengthen its women’s football framework under the new AIFF president Kalyan Chaubey. Though the country has good players, it will need a long-term programme to allow them to flourish, feels head coach Thomas Dennerby.
“They need to have 8-10 football sessions every week. They can’t be working extremely hard for 2-3 months and then stop for two months and then go back and start again because then they will always reach the same level. Consistency and playing regularly — that’s what helps players to pass on to the next level(s),” he says.
“In a big country like India, it could be a good thing to have an AIFF Academy where we can have the best players — from the Under-17, Indian Arrows, Under-19 and the senior teams practising together, seeing each other and having role models.”
Former India international and AIFF technical committee member Henry Menezes, in a chat with Sportstar, also suggests measures to strengthen the infrastructure of women’s football in the country. “We need to branch out to every district and State, and it should have the same equity as men’s football. More academies and schools should have AIFF A License coaches,” he says.
Last month, president Chaubey had discussed the introduction of a U-17 Women’s League, in association with the Centre and the Sports Authority of India.
Despite the unfavourable results in the tournament, the World Cup experience can act as a catalyst for a better tomorrow for many more young girls like Anita and Vinita.