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U-17 Women's World Cup: Indian football's brave new frontier

India was thumped 8-0 by the US at the U-17 Women's World Cup, but the tournament is a great chance to develop a new generation of Indian women footballers

India in action against the USA at the U-17 Women's World Cup in Bhubaneswar. (PTI)

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The first wave of Indian women’s World Cup footballers is here. On Tuesday, a squad of 21 young women from India took on USA in the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup at the Kalinga Stadium, Bhubaneswar to mark their debut in the tournament at any level. India was thumped 8-0 by one of the best women's teams in the world in this opening encounter. However, just the fact that Indian girls are mixing it up with the heavyweights was a thrilling and encouraging sight.

The tournament was originally scheduled to take place in 2020 but was delayed due to the pandemic. As a result, many of the women who were among the World Cup hopefuls for the 2020 tournament are now over 17, with some having graduated to the national team. Along the way, the event too has lost some of its sheen and scope. Six venues were supposed to host the tournament in 2020, but only three will do so in 2022. The drummed-up hype that preceded India hosting the U-17 men’s World Cup in 2017—where the country broke the attendance records for the tournament and the final at Salt Lake was attended by 66,000—is conspicuously missing.

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All of that faded into the background as the Indian team finally took their place in the spotlight on Tuesday. “It's not only about the result,” India coach Thomas Dennerby told AIFF (All-India Football Federation) website last week. “It’s about the performance to show that Indian girls can play football.”

Having qualified for the 16-team World Cup as the hosts, India are in a tough group, along with women’s football powerhouses USA and Brazil. Joining them in Group A are Morocco, who became the first North African side to make the cut for the tournament. On paper, it seems nearly impossible for India to make it out of the group, but Dennerby wants the team to challenge the world order.

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Key World Cup Dates.
Key World Cup Dates. (Narender Pal Singh)

“We want to be in the quarter-finals and are going to fight (for it) with our lives,” he told the press on the eve of his team’s first match, “We have a team that can defend very well. If we can put pressure on the team and utilise our chances…” What he left unsaid was a whiff of hope, of ambition. Dennerby, with India captain Astam Oraon sitting alongside in the press conference, talked of surmounting the odds stacked up against his team.

Fuelling dreams

As teenagers, the world is full of possibilities for these footballers. It is up to the coaches, like Dennerby, to tend to their dreams, give them direction and allow them to express themselves. The global governing body for football, FIFA itself was late to the party, launching the U-17 World Cup for women in 2008, 23 years after an equivalent competition for men.

The biennial event, however, doesn’t quite reflect the pecking order of senior women’s football worldwide. For example, the most successful team in the tournament is North Korea with two titles (2008, 2016). Spain is the defending champion but USA, who have won four out of eight senior Women’s World Cups, have only a runners-up finish to show.

Indian U-17 footballers in training.
Indian U-17 footballers in training. (PTI)

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The 2022 edition already has its share of feel-good stories. Along with India, Tanzania and Morocco will be making their debut in the U-17 Women’s World Cup. Morocco overcame a two-goal deficit to beat Ghana, who had played in all the previous editions, on penalties in the second leg to seal their qualification. Finishing runners-up in the 2021 edition of CECAFA (African confederation) Women's U-17 Championship, the Tanzanian U-17 women’s team is the first from the country to qualify for any FIFA World Cup.

In the last few years, athletes from neglected, rural pockets of India have asserted themselves on the national and international stage. The history-making U-17 women’s squad is a reflection of that. Six of the girls in the team—Astam Oraon (captain), Nitu Linda, Purnima Kumari, Anita Kumari, Sudha Tirkey and Anjali Munda—are from Jharkhand.

While Oraon was preparing for the World Cup, her village, Banari Goratoli, honoured her contribution by building a new road that leads to her home. For striker Tirkey, football could be a tool to a better life. After her father abandoned the family, her mother has been working as a sweeper in her school and younger sister works as domestic help.

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“This tournament is very special as it gives a bigger message than just football,” Jaime Yarza, the Director of FIFA Tournaments, had said on his visit to India in March. “The whole country understands football is an attractive sport. Now, it is not only about football. It is about women, their development and empowerment.”

Stepping stone

India winning the rights to host this tournament is not without its problems. While the All India Football Federation (AIFF) gets ready for the showpiece event, women’s football in India lacks a proper structure or pathway.

The Indian Women’s League—the top domestic competition in India—was established only in 2016, in the wake of Indian Super League’s success. While the first edition started with six teams and lasted just over two weeks, it has slowly expanded to 12 teams. This (2021-22) was the first season that the IWL went on for over a month (15 April-26 May).

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It is unlikely that the U-17 World Cup alone can change the way women’s football is viewed or treated in India, but it can attract attention, make a splash. Provide this group of players a springboard, and the younger generation with a dream. “A lot of people in India are still unaware of women’s football but this women’s World Cup will be broadcast on TV for everyone to watch in our country,” says Indian defender Loitongbam Ashalata Devi. “We have an opportunity to show the whole nation at what level we are playing. When you play matches at the highest level, opportunity starts coming our way. Since we played the match against Brazil ahead of the women’s Asian Cup, India players have also been getting the opportunity to play outside the country. Manisha Kalyan (playing as a midfielder for Cypriot First Division club Apollon) and Dangmei Grace (a forward for Uzbekistan Super League club Nasaf Qarshi) are now playing in foreign leagues. These changes and developments happen only after we play against top teams at the highest levels.”

Taking on the world

After an almost 18-month break due to the pandemic, preparations for the U-17 World Cup restarted in February this year. New players were scouted at the sub-junior nationals. The initial group of about 45 players was culled to the final squad of 21. In the meantime, India visited Italy, Norway and Spain for exposure tours and won the U-18 SAFF Championships. Plans were made, remade and polished.

“These girls have been playing football or training 11-12 times a week for half a year,” says Dennerby. “Hopefully this will also help the team be prepared. And I’m sure about one thing: no team will outrun us because their fitness levels won’t be good enough.”

Fighting words from the veteran Swedish coach as his team stepped into a brave new world. India may not yet have the quality and finesse to win the World Cup, but they have a lot to gain.

Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.

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