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How women’s football in India lost its way

The Indian women's football team is unbeatable in South Asia but outside the neighbourhood, it remains toothless

Indian women’s football team celebrates its victory in the final of Saff women’s football championship in Siliguri on 4 January. Photo: AFP
Indian women’s football team celebrates its victory in the final of Saff women’s football championship in Siliguri on 4 January. Photo: AFP

The finals of the women’s cricket World Cup at Lord’s delivered a massive syringeful of 100% undiluted heartbreak and unmitigated rage. Never in all the years this writer has been a sports fan has he simultaneously loved and hated a team so much (and this comes from a fan of Arsenal Football Club, the global Centre of Excellence for unremitting heartbreak).

But if you would rather curdle yourself into a state of agitation at a slightly slower rate, then a brief reading of the history of Indian women’s football will do nicely indeed.

Broadly speaking, the history of Indian women’s football somewhat mirrors that of the men’s game when seen from an Asian perspective. In both cases, India had something of a head start, leading up to the 1980s, in comparison with their continental rivals. Which usually meant that tournaments were small, India was a de facto participant, and tended to perform admirably. For instance, at the 1980 Asian Women’s Championships, held in January at the Corporation Stadium in what was then Calicut (now Kozhikode), India entered not one but two teams.

One online repository of footballing statistics says the following: “In the original fixture list, the two Indian teams were labelled ‘India A’ and ‘India B’. Subsequently, they were relabelled ‘India S’ and ‘India N’, respectively. It is unconfirmed precisely what ‘S’ and ‘N’ stood for, but a likely possibility is ‘Seniors’ and ‘Novices’. An alternative possibility is ‘South’ and ‘North’."

This appears to be something of a feature of Indian football. Some years ago, this writer ran into Bhaichung Bhutia at a literary festival and asked him how many goals he had scored for India. “I am not sure," the footballer had said, “the Federation doesn’t have complete records."

Eventually, India S came second in that 1980 tournament, losing to Taiwan 2-0.

Why did India enter two teams? Almost certainly, this was to make up numbers. This was a particularly rebellious time for women’s football in Asia. The sport and tournament was run largely by the Asian Ladies’ Football Confederation (ALFC) that had recognition from neither Fifa nor AFC (Asian Football Confederation). Both organizations continuously tried to dissuade Asian countries from sending teams to these tournaments.

Thus the 1980 Calicut edition featured two Indian teams, Western Australia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Malaysia. India did well enough in all these “unofficial" tournaments. All of which is doubly commendable because the Indian women’s football team was only established in any form around 1975. India was a moderately sized fish in an artificially constrained pond. But hopes were high.

Two more editions took place. India came third in the 1981 Hong Kong edition, and second in the 1983 Bangkok edition.

And then came the great inflection point. Or two inter-related inflection points. From a broader Asian perspective, the ALFC was eventually absorbed into the AFC, and the women’s game had official Fifa sanction. Tournaments were no longer run by enthusiasts of the women’s game, but the same associations that ran the men’s game in each of these countries.

As Jennifer Doyle noted in a 2010 New York Times piece on the Indian women’s team ahead of the South Asian Games tournament, the same thing happened in India. The women’s game was handed over to…well: “Leaders of the women’s game were replaced with inexperienced and uninterested staff. The program lost momentum and many of its best players." Things fell apart.

In some sense, women’s football in India has never recovered from that transition. The runners-up in the 1983 tournament are yet to even get out of the group stages in any AFC Women’s Championships that have taken place since. China, a country that established a women’s team some years after India, has left India far, far behind. In December 1998, China defeated the Indian women 16-0. Today, China is ranked 11th in world women’s football, India a distant 60th.

Indeed, the women’s team played so little football that in 2009 it was dropped from the Fifa rankings. Because it had essentially been active for around 18 months. The authorities responded in somewhat brilliant fashion: Women’s football was introduced in both the South Asian Football Federation (Saff) and South Asian Games, and India have won in every edition since.

But step outside the local neighbourhood, and a once-formidable power remains toothless. As with the story of almost any Indian sport, it didn’t have to be this way.

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