Sound planning needed

THE recent AFC women's championship in Bangkok confirmed that like Indian men's football, the women's too has long way to go to catch up with the best in the continent.

THE recent AFC women's championship in Bangkok confirmed that like Indian men's football, the women's too has long way to go to catch up with the best in the continent. The two Koreas, China and Japan are the leading forces in women's football and the championship further endorsed this fact. If statistics mean anything then the 0-12 drubbing by China in Bangkok puts India's stature in proper perspective. True, India had beaten Uzbekistan by a huge margin earlier but overall, the performance lacked conviction in the absence of any meaningful preparation. Indeed, women's football in India represents a poignant story that is marked by lack of encouragement over the years.

There was an effort in the mid 90s, by which period women's football administration had already been brought under the All India Football Federation, to give the Indian team a boost by sending it to Germany and a few other European countries as a preparatory exercise to the Asian championship, which was held in China. A leading footballer of yesteryear, Arumainayagam, was in charge of that team. There were encouraging reports on the application showed by the Indians even if results were not commensurate with it. But just as one swallow does not make a summer, an isolated effort without proper back up did precious little for the growth of women's football. This was seen in the 1998 Bangkok Asian Games where India was walloped by China and Chinese Taipei in the preliminary phase and the country ended up conceding over 35 goals. Such results hardly help raise the morale of the women footballers in the country.

Truth to tell, women footballers in India have been a forgotten lot, when there is much that can be done for their benefit. Foremost is to give the national championship a touch of sanctity that is conspicuously missing. Till now there is no trophy instituted for the senior championship. Also the 11th edition of the national championship, recently held in Chennai, was actually a spill over of the previous year's agenda. Need anything more be said of the state of affairs of this wing of Indian football? Even the conduct of the championship right in the height of summer when football activity in the country takes a break is difficult to comprehend. Aside from the summer hardship, this also affected the preparations of the teams owing to non-availability of players in view of the vacation. After all junior and sub-junior players formed the nuclei of most teams. In the Chennai national for instance, out of the 251 players from 18 States, which took part, 102 were in the under-19 age group of which again 37 were below 16 years.

Then again, in the absence of clear-cut plans for the future, women footballers are in the dark about what next in terms of competition. True, spotters have been asked to prepare a list of 35 players from the Chennai national, but, with no assignments ahead, there is a question mark on the utility of the list. One of the banes of women's football is the lack of tournaments in the country and an under-exposure to international competition. It is not as though India lacks in talent — Manipur and Bengal being the regions rich in women's football — but the crying need is for a concerted effort to develop it on proper lines.

If Manipur is ahead of the rest and comes with certain polished players then credit should go to the single-minded efforts of the All-Manipur Association and the help provided by the men players. The current Manipur coach Ekendra Singh, a former State player, admits that he has accommodated the State's latest talent to hit the headlines, Bala Devi, in his house in Imphal since she lives far away, to facilitate her football training. Watching the Manipuris, all supple and nimble-footed, gave one the impression that they have much in common with the Chinese and Koreans in body chemistry. This could be true for most northeastern States.

There is reason to believe then that India can gain much through a special football development scheme catering this region with special emphasis on laying a solid base in women's football. That Manipur today is the champion in the junior and senior sections only drives home the point further.

Since the turn of the 90s only once has the national championship come to the southern region. In fact this is the second time that it has come out of the eastern zone, Punjab having hosted it three years ago. If anything, this fresh development is a welcome sign in the overall effort to broadbase the sport in the country.

It is a healthy sign for women's football, taking into account the fact that the championship in Chennai attracted a better gathering than the men's national league matches. Also the way relatively lesser accomplished States such as Kerala, Punjab, Haryana and Tamil Nadu shaped up, there is reason to believe that systematic training combined with tournament experience could put them on sound footing.

If Indian women can excel in hockey and cricket then there is no reason why they should not do well in football too. The need of the hour is a definite goal and sound planning.