“We fought hard,” said India striker Neha, on the verge of tears. “Brazil is a much better team but we gave them a fight.” For 90 minutes, Neha and her teammates had taken on a team much greater in pedigree, and run tirelessly to prevent the inevitable. Despite another spirited effort, India bowed out of the U-17 Women’s World Cup with a 0-5 defeat to the South American giants. While you couldn’t fault the players for commitment, it was apparent that they had taken on battles they weren’t quite prepared for.
India qualified for the tournament, their first FIFA women’s World Cup at any level, by the virtue of being hosts. Rather than it being a purported gilt-edged opportunity for India, for a week the U-17 football team looked completely out of their depth. If India began the tournament full of hope, it just took their first match against the USA for that bubble to burst. They didn’t give a nervy India any time to settle, and cantered to an 8-0 win. Though the girls in blue came up with much improved performances in the subsequent Group A matches, they suffered defeats at the hands of Morocco (0-3) and Brazil.
Through the three matches, India had showed heart in defence and creative sparks in midfield. They created some half-chances—including Lynda Kom’s superb pass that found Anita Kumari in the 83rd minute against Morocco but her shot on goal was fended off. Against Brazil, Kumari was in a one-on-one situation against the goalkeeper, but Leilane anticipated early and cleared the ball. Where India clearly lacked finesse was in the final third.
“We can see that the fitness level is definitely not the problem, but we definitely need to be honest and say that, at the technical level, it is a little bit lower than the other teams,” India coach Thomas Dennerby said after the match against Morocco. “We have been away from our family since March, trying to have a good performance, but we need to accept the fact that these five months were not enough to get ready to really challenge the best teams.”
Under-prepared and under-rehearsed, the players were brave to take field in a tournament at this level. But they had been let down by a federation (the All India Football Federation) more interested in gloating about hosting another youth World Cup, rather than preparing a team fit for the occasion.
When India staged the U-17 men’s World Cup in 2017, the federation conducted a dedicated scouting and training programme that lasted more than two years. The women’s team received only a fraction of that attention. The pandemic derailed plans and the original squad scouted for the event. No effort was made by the federation to regroup and chart a roadmap for women’s football in the extra time offered to them.
India began its World Cup preparation in late February. Thomas Dennerby, who was brought in as the U-17 coach with 2020 in view, was lent to the Indian senior national women’s team before he came back to guide the youngsters for the 2022 U-17 event. In July, assistant coach, and former India player, Alex Ambrose was sacked for sexual assault allegations. For a brief while, uncertainty surrounded Indian football and the tournament, as FIFA briefly banned the AIFF for “violation of FIFA Statutes”. The squad of 21, which became the first to represent India at a women’s World Cup, was born out of this chaos.
Considering the age group, and the historical and societal prejudice stacked against their gender, the women’s U-17 team should have received more care and attention, not less, than their male counterparts. The hope was that India had already staged a similar event and had hopefully learned a few things from it.
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The team had embarked on a few exposure trips and won the U-18 SAFF Championships for the first time, but less than eight months of training could not camouflage years of neglect. India has no grassroots programme or developmental structure; only a token national women’s league, which lasts barely over a month. Now contrast this with the competing teams: countries like USA, Spain, England, New Zealand, Netherlands, Brazil and Norway, that have equal pay for its men’s and women’s football teams. Across the world, efforts are being made to level the playing field.
“Women’s football doesn’t have such a long history and we have experienced it (across the world),” Kenio Gonzalo, coach of defending champions Spain, told reporters on the eve of the tournament. “In all countries, there is gender inequality. For women to find space in football, enjoy football, feel at ease while playing and feel rewarded, they have to be given all the resources.”
These 21 teenagers from India, who might be left to carry the scars of defeat, were taking on some of the best in the business. While USA has emerged as a powerhouse in women’s football, European and South American teams have a culture of football and an established league structure. The Spanish team that travelled to India had five players from Real Madrid, one of whom, Carla Camacho, made her senior Read Madrid debut last year at the age of 16. The squad also features five players from FC Barcelona, which opened the doors of its famous academy La Masia to women in 2021.
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France has a four-tier professional League, while the captain of Colombia, Linda Caicedo, has represented the senior national team, U-20 team at the World Cup, and plays for one of the biggest clubs in the country, Deportivo Cali, having made her professional debut at the age of 14. The gulf in experience was all too visible. After only months of training, and even less training together, the Indian women were thrown in the deep end. For most of the players, the match against USA was their first international game. They may have overcome financial or social odds to reach this stage, but nothing could prepare them for the harsh glare of the spotlight. Or the skill and tempo of the international game.
“India have a good chance to be a top team in Asia.,” Dennerby said on Monday. “We have talented enough players; I hope we showed that today. But they need time. They need to come to a good environment, good training sessions every single day. We need to have a strong long-term programme for them. They need an environment where they are playing football eleven months a year. Regularity, consistency, that's the key.”
While the European and American teams may be far ahead of the curve, India did not compare well even with fellow debutants Morocco and Tanzania. The two African teams had beaten bigger teams like Ghana and Cameroon to make it to the World Cup. By doing so, Morocco became the first North African side to qualify, and this was Tanzania’s first appearance in a FIFA World Cup. Having qualified on merit, the quality and intensity they brought was there for all to see. Tanzania scored a historic 2-1 win over France in the group stage. Meanwhile, Morocco held its own against Brazil in a 0-1 defeat and broke down India’s resistance in the second half for a comfortable win.
There are lessons to be learnt from each of the 15 teams that came to India for the World Cup. India’s World Cup campaign had carried the hopeful hashtag of #KickOffTheDream, with the long game in sight. If the AIFF can use this tournament as a wake-up call, put a structure in place, and give young women a platform to shine, the losing battle the U-17 team wouldn’t have been in vain.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.