Late last year, during an interview for a fintech company, Indian football icon Sunil Chhetri outlined his day’s schedule. Wake up at 6am, do 50 push-ups, have a cup of black coffee, go for training, have lunch, sleep, go to for another training session in the evening. He has time set aside for his wife, and a strict no-phone policy when going to bed. It’s a monotonous, monkish discipline. One that has seen him excel even at the age of 38. It's exemplary. Only, not everyone can follow the example.
“I was discussing this with Asha (Loitongbam Ashalata Devi), the Indian captain,” former India women’s football team captain and goalkeeper Aditi Chauhan says, in an interview with Lounge.
“Asha works for the Railways and is currently posted in Hajipur, Bihar. She has to get up at 6am, do her own rehab, go to the gym, get back and make her own breakfast. Then go to the office at 9am. Even though they have sports quota jobs, it’s not like they will let you go early or not show up. When she gets back from office after 6pm, it’s not possible to go out anywhere.
“This is just one example but it’s true for all of us. All the national team players, including myself, are either working in the government sector or are studying or have their own set up. These things hamper your development, in terms of giving your all. But when we come back to the national team everyone expects us to play the same level and achieve at the same level and then there are questions why aren’t we developing, why aren’t we improving? But you look at the reality of the situation.”
Women’s football is still at a very nascent stage in the country. And the players continue to battle the odds, balancing work and play, as another season of the Indian Women’s League—the country’s premier football competition—approaches.
The sixth season of the IWL, which was established in 2016, will start from 26 April, just when the unforgiving, unbearably hot summer is setting in. Sixteen teams will compete for the title over six weeks in Ahmedabad this year. According to the All India Football Federation (AIFF) website, the matches will have 8am or 4:30pm starts.
Though questions remain over the length and the timing of the IWL, the AIFF made a few encouraging announcements on 14 April. While revamping the League is on the agenda, more importantly they stated, “Starting next season, it will be mandatory for the top eight participating teams in the IWL, to have minimum 10 Indian players on a fully professional annual contract worth a minimum of ₹3.2 lakhs.” It was a move towards making the sport professional.
“We are still not at an ideal set up,” says Chauhan, who will miss this IWL season due to an ACL injury. “But there have been small steps progressing the right way. We needed to have a professional league and we have to show that football can be a sustainable career."
Chauhan, 30, rose to fame in in 2015, when, while studying for her Masters in Sports Management from the Loughborough University, she played for West Ham United Ladies. She also became the first Indian to win the ‘Woman In Football Award' at the third Asian Football Awards in November 2015. After returning to India, she has become a mainstay in the national team, and has emerged as a strong voice for women’s football in the country.
The timing is also right to amp up the noise. After all India now has women world champions and icons in various sports. Moreover, the success of Women’s Premier League in cricket, though a completely different ball game, shows the Indian audience is ready for mainstream, prime time women’s sports.
“The reality of the world that women have to prove extra and achieve and really set an example, only then you get attention,” Chauhan says. “With the women’s football team, we have always been motivated to prove ourselves, to achieve something. Even with the situations we face with lesser investment, not a perfect environment to do the best we could. Because we know only when we do that you get the attention, when people realise the real potential.”
The women’s national team made a splash earlier this month, as they cleared the first hurdle of the AFC Women's Olympic Qualifying Tournament. India defeated Kyrgyzstan 5-0 in the first leg and 4-0 in the second to keep their chance of qualifying for the elite event alive.
“This is a huge achievement,” says Chauhan, whose season was cut short when she got injured during an international friendly against Nepal in February. “For the national team, we have consistently been trying to achieve more, even when things have not gone according to plan on a couple of occasions.”
Though results with the national team will give the game more traction, Chauhan believes the need of the hour is a stronger domestic set-up, right from grassroots to the top-tier League, to make sure the foundation is sound.
“These are the steps being taken by the federation and the government, but I think to actually progress it is very important that all the stakeholders, especially the private sector and ISL clubs, invest more,” she says. “It is a normal and logical step; they don’t get extra brownie points for doing it. This is the duty and responsibility of the federation to grow the sport. AIFF slogan also is, ‘forward together.’ It can’t just be a hashtag.”
And Indian women’s football can’t only be an against-the-odds story.
Deepti Patwardhan is a sportswriter based in Mumbai.