Indian Women’s League: A new dawn

For Indian women, who have had no regular leagues such as the I-League or the Indian Super League, until now, the IWL is a blessing. It is great platform for young footballers to make a mark at the top level.

Oinam Bembem Devi (left) in action during a match against Bahrain. Due to a dearth of tournaments for women in India, Bembem Devi, the captain of Eastern Sporting Union in the Indian Women’s League, had to move out of the country in search of opportunities.   -  AIFF

The AIFF (All India Football Federation) announced the launch of the Indian Women’s League recently to mixed reactions.

After years of making false promises and missing out on talented players due to lack of opportunities, the AIFF has finally put together a league for women, albeit a small one, spread over two weeks. All the matches in the tournament are being played at the Dr. Ambedkar Stadium in New Delhi.

Indian women, despite occupying a respectable 54th place in the FIFA rankings, and outperforming their male counterparts for years, have had no regular leagues such as the I-League or the Indian Super League for men, until now. Their playing time was often limited to the National championships and the SAFF competitions, after which the onus of maintaining the fitness required to play at the top level was on the players. This forced many prominent players, including the former AIFF Player of the Year (2013), Oinam Bembem Devi, the captain of Eastern Sporting Union in the IWL, to move out of the country in search of opportunities.

In 2014, Bembem 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 moved to London in 2015 and continues to play for West Ham United Ladies.

It is not that there are not many examples in India to show how focused efforts for the women’s game can reap rich benefits. Manipur has set the benchmark in women’s football by conducting intra-state competitions on a regular basis. The state has won the Indian women’s football championship title 17 times 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 the SAI (Sports Authority of India), has been promoting the game, and as a result, Odisha has become a formidable force in the women’s game. The Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar and the Barabati Stadium in Cuttack are the hub of Odisha women’s football and have produced top-class players such as the >2016 AIFF Women’s Player of the Year, Sasmita Malik.

A small but significant step

One can argue that the logic behind the decision of the AIFF and IMG-Reliance to start the IWL is 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 woman footballers. The organisers have failed to find a TV broadcaster for the event and this will hamper the league’s reach and appeal. No prize money has been announced for the winner either. All these point to one big question: what was the need to start such a disorganised league in a hurry?

However, the AIFF’s decision to go ahead with the women’s league despite its attempts to attract sponsors going in vain shows the federation’s intention to improve the game. Perhaps the reason why sponsors stayed away, despite the success of the Indian Super League, was the lack of clarity in AIFF’s roadmap for the women’s game.

Now that the 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 help reduce, if not completely remove, players’ dependence on other jobs for financial security. The National team captain, Ngangom Bala Devi, is a constable with the Manipur Police, and commitments such as these will surely hinder a player’s progress.

The IWL, which features only Indian players, is 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.

On step at a time

During the inauguration of the IWL, Praful Patel, the AIFF president, said, “Our women’s team is ranked No. 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 is like the Holy Grail, it is important that the women’s team takes one step at a time. It should first aim to establish itself among the Top-5 in Asia. Indian women have dominated the South Asian region in the past few years and have been unbeaten in their last 19 matches, but are currently ranked No. 12 in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).

Five out of 24 slots in the 2015 FIFA women’s World Cup went to the teams from the AFC, but to reach the Top-5 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 they went past the group stages was in 1983. Japan, Australia and China (the top three sides in the 2014 Asian Cup) and Jordan (host) have been given automatic qualification for the 2018 edition.

India’s quest for a place among 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 see that the momentum gained by the IWL is utilised properly to rise above the ‘big fish in a small pond’ mentality and ensure that the women play more friendly matches and tournaments against higher-ranked teams.

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