U-17 Women's World Cup: India hosts, game plan awaited

The junior girls’ national football championship held in Kolhapur has been used as a scouting platform ahead of the biennial Women’s FIFA Under-17 World Cup.

Sumati Kumari (yellow) of Jharkhand and Drishti Pant of Gujarat are players with immense promise.   -  Shyam Vasudevan

It’s half past seven on a warm April morning and while the city of Kolhapur slowly begins to shake itself out of its slumber, 22 girls are battling it out on a football field.

It’s a semifinal clash between title-favourite Jharkhand and an unheralded Gujarat. The girls from Jharkhand live up to expectations and secure a comfortable 3-0 win, but there aren’t too many sad faces in the Gujarat camp. For this is the first time the team has made the semifinals of the junior girls’ national football championship.

The match finds no takers and the only attendees are a couple of parents, two scouts and a few curious onlookers. The Polo Ground faces the majestic black stone polished structures of the New Palace built in the late 19th century. There are wide walking paths surrounded by towering trees in the premises and a few walkers stop and stare, but that’s all the audience these girls have.

READ: Bring the cup home - Himachal's fairytale win against Jharkhand

Hemant Pant, whose daughter plays for the Gujarat team, is the most vocal member of the “audience.” “Drishti did not want me to be here, but I still make it a point to attend all her games,” he says with a broad smile. Drishti Pant plays as a midfielder for Gujarat and has been instrumental in her side’s progress until the last-four stage with a knack for reading and controlling the game.

The 14-year-old took up football because, by her own admission, she wasn't “tall enough” to play basketball. “I began playing football when I was 11. My dad wanted to become a sportsman too, so he allows me to do whatever I want. He puts no pressure on me,” she says. “The only condition is that I should at least get pass marks,” she quickly adds as her father looks on. Drishti says she scored 80 percent in her 9th standard exams, but ask her about her marks in maths, the one subject most schoolchildren dread, and she admits, “I have a bit of trouble with maths,” with a sheepish grin.

After the gruelling match, the girls head for a sumptuous breakfast consisting of cereals, omelettes, sausages, fruits and rose milk, at the Palace’s premises, served by the owner Shahu Maharaj, who is still considered as a ruler by the locals.

The Jharkhand team is animatedly discussing the game and it takes a bit of convincing and cajoling before one can talk to its star striker Sumati Kumari. Having scored a phenomenal 17 goals in the tournament, she’s the one everyone’s talking about.

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The victorious Himachal Pradesh team.   -  Shyam Vasudevan

 

“I was fascinated by the game when I saw others play. I started playing with the boys in my village of Gumla. I was often the only girl,” she says. Her constant shy smile tells you she hasn’t spoken to many reporters.

She joined the state team only some 18 months ago and has made rapid strides since. Sumati now yearns to don the Indian jersey. “Hum India khelna chahte hai aur World Cup jaana chahte hain. Agar wahan jaenge toh uss team ko jeetane ki koshish karenge (I want to play for the Indian team and go to the World Cup. If I make it there, I will try my best to help the team win),” she says in earnest.

She adds that she idolises Indian football captain Sunil Chhetri for his dribbling and ability to cut through opposition defences, and admires Cristiano Ronaldo for his “hair-cutting.”

READ: Women's U-17 World Cup: Thirty-five girls shortlisted for team India training camp

Drishti and Sumati are among the many girls here bidding to become among the first Indian women footballers to feature in a FIFA World Cup. From the grossly empty stands to makeshift tents that serve as dressing rooms, it promises to be a world of change for these young girls if they can make it to the Indian squad when the nation hosts the FIFA U-17 World Cup next year.

The tournament held in Kolhapur — which Himachal Pradesh won by beating Jharkhand 3-1 in the final — has been used as a scouting platform ahead of the biennial World Cup. Senior women’s team coach Maymol Rocky, her assistant Chaoba Devi and U-19 women’s team coach Alex Ambrose attended the games in Kolhapur and selected 35 girls for a preliminary national camp to be held in Goa through May. Drishti and Sumati made the cut.

Of the 35 shortlisted girls, 10 were part of the U-16 team that played in the AFC U-16 Women’s Qualifiers in September last year. They have played for the country before and are now looking to do it at the biggest platform for their age category.

Hosting rights

India was awarded hosting rights for the 2020 Women’s FIFA U-17 World Cup on March 15 and will have its second taste of World Cup football. The move was immediately lapped up as one of the brightest achievements of Indian football, but in the days that have followed, the narrative has changed: does India have the footballing structure and pedigree to host even a junior women’s World Cup?

As of May this year, there is a little over a year to go for the World Cup and there is no junior women’s league in place. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) maintains it has a roadmap and a plan, but it is yet to be approved. The AIFF left it as late as April to identify and scout talent for the World Cup team.

The apathy towards women’s football isn’t confined to the AIFF, it extends to the world governing body FIFA as well. India was awarded hosting rights for the men’s U-17 World Cup on December 5, 2013, three years and 10 months before the tournament kicked off on October 6, 2017. With next year’s World Cup likely to be held around October, it leaves India with barely a year and four months to prepare, which is not a very comforting thought.

Springboard

The U-17 World Cup is expected to provide a much-needed fillip to women’s football in India. But the Federation also has a host of challenges to tackle, the first one being an acute shortage of time.

The AIFF has a little over a year to get a plan in place and form a competitive team. When India won the hosting rights for the men’s U-17 World Cup, a scouting programme was already in place. German coach Nicolai Adam, who was joined by national team scouting director Abhishek Yadav in 2015, was relentless in his search for talent. The boys went on close to 15 foreign exposure tours and played over 110 competitive matches, all between 2015 and the World Cup.

The team had a decent run at the World Cup but was unable to pick up any points, a testament to the intense level of competition in age-group football and how no amount of preparation time can be enough.

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The Polo Ground in Kolhapur which hosted the girls’ National football championship is adjacent to the majestic black stone polished structures of the New Palace built in the late 19th century.   -  Shyam Vasudevan

 

Senior women’s team coach Maymol Rocky, however, is intent on looking at the positives. “We cannot crib about it (that we have only one year to go), but at least we have started, that’s more important for me. Most people have a negative notion that we have only one year. But if you look at the developed countries, they prepare just one month or 15 days before a World Cup because their teams are professionally honed. For us, we have one year in hand and we should be prepared by then. I’m not saying we will lift the trophy, but we will give a good performance,” she says.

“We have a year-long programme and the girls will do equal or even better than the boys,” she continues.

She adds that a well-defined plan will be put in place soon. “Since it’s one year to go, it’s not a small programme and has to be planned well. It requires a lot of financial support, and a lot of other support and the Federation is providing that. The Federation is focusing on women’s football, that’s the key.”

Who will be in charge?

The next matter of concern is the uncertainty surrounding the team. Alex Ambrose is in charge of the ongoing camp in Goa, but there is no word as to whether he will continue to be in charge of the team at the World Cup. Senior sources in the federation have hinted that with financial aid from the Sports Authority of India, a foreign coach may take over.

The AIFF has also not said how long the current camp will run or what the focus will be. Once again, it has been learnt only through sources that the camp will be held for a month and that another U-16 national tournament will be held in June, most likely in Cuttack. This is to further scout talent and facilitate shuffling from the national camp.

How will it pan out?

Would the girls take the same route as their male counterparts and play international friendlies and four-nation tournaments is the pertinent question. The fact that time isn’t a luxury the AIFF can afford kicks in here because there’s only so much football the girls can play ahead of the World Cup without burning out.

Had the AIFF thought it out, it could have perhaps hosted the U-16 championship in March and formed a team to participate in the Indian Women’s League.

READ: Jharkhand's Sumati Kumari stands tall among U-17 World Cup probables

The girls would have got the vital experience of playing against their senior counterparts and would have also had the opportunity to learn the tricks of the trade from established players such as Ngangom Bala Devi, Nongmaithem Ratanbala Devi or Tanvie Hans for example.

It remains to be seen whether the girls will be retained to form a team, similar to the Indian Arrows team that plays in the I-League, and perhaps participate in the next edition of the Indian Women’s League. Maymol acknowledges that it’s only a matter of time before the youngsters vie for a senior team call-up, which currently has an astonishing average age of 21. “In another two-three years, these girls will be competing for spots in the senior team,” she says.

Getting noticed

Women’s football in India has been grabbing more attention following a string of phenomenal performances over the past year. The senior team led by example by clinching its fifth consecutive SAFF title and was agonisingly knocked out of the second round round of Olympic Qualifiers owing to a poor goal difference. And of course, who can forget the sublime freekick Dalima Chibber struck against Nepal in the SAFF final which went viral on social media!

Meanwhile, the U-16 team, too, braved extreme weather conditions in Mongolia and went within touching distance of reaching the second round of the AFC U-16 Women’s Championship Qualifiers. The U-15 team also went on to win the SAFF Championship. Despite all these remarkable achievements, the women players have hardly got enough game time. Take a look at the senior team for instance, which is ranked 63 in the world — better than the men’s ranking of 101. The only league held in the country for them is the Indian Women’s League, which is held over 20-odd days. Making matters worse is the fact that the matches are played during the odd hours of the day — 8 a.m. and 4.30 p.m. kick-offs — with no broadcasts sparring a live stream on the Federation’s Facebook page. While women’s football has seen an upswing, it’s still not receiving its due importance.

In the hands of the govt

Sources in the federation have indicated that an elaborate plan has been penned down, but is awaiting approval from the government, i.e, the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports as the AIFF has failed to achieve financial self sufficiency to begin preparations for the World Cup. It will have to depend on the government to release funds for the same.

Given that the government has its hands tied with the ongoing elections, the AIFF will have to wait until the last week of May, or perhaps even longer, before it can officially announce its long overdue roadmap for the junior women’s football team.