On November 26 when Manisha Kalyan scored the goal against hosts Brazil during the invitational four-nation women’s football tournament in Manaus, I was convinced that those skeptical of women’s football potential in India will think differently in future.

Firstly, Manisha’s outstanding performance in Manaus was like a big trophy to Indian women’s football. Secondly, her performance provided evidence that Indian girls have the potential to excel at the global level.

We eventually lost 1-6 to Brazil in the tournament, but with more investment in women’s football—right from the grassroots to the elite level—the chance of reaping a good harvest is bright.

Long term plan & strategy

Just putting in money will not be enough. There has to be a proper planning at all levels. I mean to say a professional approach with long-term vision is a must. Only then can we think of sustainable growth at the grassroots level as well as at the top of the pyramid.

States like Manipur, Odisha, Mizoram, Jharkhand, and to some extent Tamilnadu and Haryana, have taken strides in women’s football. No doubt, Manipur is way ahead in every aspect of women’s football. But overall, developments in women’s football aren’t adequate to holistically improve standards in various age groups. There is no doubt that a collective effort will ultimately help make a major impact at the elite level.

Funding scenario

Currently, major funding to women’s football is coming from Central and select State Govts. Hosting of AFC Women’s Asian Cup 2022 and FIFA U17 Women’s World Cup India 2022 are possible due to the funding and support from Central Govt and State Govts. Maharashtra govt is making everything possible to host Women’s Asian Cup, starting 20th January 2022 in two venues. Jharkhand Govt is funding the training of U17 and Senior Women’s Team, Odisha govt is going to fund IWL 2022 and also significantly funded in improving stadium and training infra in Bhubneshwar for the U17 Women’s WC 2022. Likewise, Kerala has funded the hosting of National Championship and women’s national camp. Likwise Gujarat, Assam and West Bengal govts are also investing in hosting U17 WC in 2022.

Corporate funding is significantly low and thus, grassroots and youth level women’s football is suffering the most. Though FIFA’s funding for Women’s Football has increased significantly but women’s football in India can’t thrive on FIFA’s funding alone. At State level there is a significant gap in funding for women’s football and majority of State FAs struggle to get any funding support either from govt or from industry.

Trendsetter

We should take note of the women’s team of Gokulam Kerala Football Club. It was set up in 2018. Within three years, Gokulam FC became India’s first club to compete in the AFC Women’s Club Championship held last month in Amman, Jordan as a Champion club of India. Clubs from Uzbekistan, India, Iran and Jordan competed in the competition. While Gokulam FC finished third, Amman FC emerged winners.

Exposure during the AFC club competition will certainly pay-off in the future, particularly in the development of women’s football at the grassroots in India.

The 20-year-old Manisha from Punjab played a stellar role in Gokulam FC’s win in the 2019-20 edition of the Indian Women’s League (IWL). Manisha, who comes from Hoshiarpur, was named the emerging player of the league.

Had Gokulam not invested in women’s football, a player like Manisha wouldn’t have gained the valuable experience needed to boost her confidence. It is that belief, and the opportunities she got to steadily improve her skills, which enabled her to raise her performance on the South American exposure tour.

Jewel in the crown

I will also draw the attention of the sports fraternity to Manipur.

The Northeastern state, a pioneer as far as women in sport is concerned, has stalwarts like Bala Devi. Her journey to stardom and playing for the Scottish Women’s Premier League club Rangers FC has inspired several youngsters in her state.

Manipur’s Bembem Devi, the legend, is a great ambassador for women’s football. The Padma Shri and Arjuna awardee recently helped the Manipur team win the national championship held in Kerala.

Bembem Devi

The Manipur government awarded Rs 5 lakh to each member of the victorious team. There are job opportunities for women footballers in Manipur. State patronage is one of the reasons why women’s football is quite popular in Manipur.

The Manipur model should be followed by other state governments. If state governments offer jobs to women footballers under the sports quota, there will be a sense of security beyond the playing field. The option of having a career through football will encourage more young girls to flock to the football field. Mizoram too was impressive in the nationals. The team reaching the semifinals for the first time is evidence that there is potential in that state too.

On the right track

Delhi too has taken the initiative to encourage girls to come out and play football. Golden League (U7, U9 & U11), competition for girls and boys was rolled out in 2018. In 2019, as many as 25 teams competed in the under-13 league and in 2020, U17 league was launched. More initiatives to come in 2022 to bring about a sea change in Delhi’s women’s football landscape.

Delhi has a two-tier women’s league structure from this season. Tier II league “Championship Division” kick started this week with 16 teams and the top five will graduate to the Top Tier League. Premier Division League will have 11 teams and the champion club will qualify to the Indian Women’s League (IWL).

NGOs playing significant role

There are several Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) supporting and developing women’s football in India. Players from poor economic background are emerging from good work done by NGOs but majority of the NGOs are working in isolation without being part of the formal structure of women’s football. I believe that we must create women specific development centres and academies, even on a small scale, are the best way to churn out players of a good standard. More young girls taking up football will increase the level of competition at the national and state levels.

Where is career opportunity?

Most importantly, players getting professional contract as a player will drive many girls into football. Right now, this is one of the biggest struggles for women players, annual professional contract from club is non-existent and thus, full time govt job is the only security for women players but that too is dwindling.

Currently, Railways is the main institution which recruits players under the sports quota. If other central government agencies like the paramilitary forces also open their doors for women footballers, it will provide new avenues for the aspirants.  

Can we take some practices from Thailand?  

While thoughts of improving Indian women’s football constantly hammer my mind, the growth of women’s football in Thailand can’t be ignored. Though Japan is the true inspiration for women’s football in Asia but Thailand’s rise in women’s football is a fine example among the top five Asian teams.

When Thailand made cut for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, the country’s football think tank increased the budget for the team. It is a different matter that Thailand finished third in its group.

Thailand also qualified for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Placed in a tough group, it lost all its three matches. Thailand’s current FIFA world ranking is 39.

Thailand’s investment in women’s football is quite visible in many aspects of women’s football. Keeping in view the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, the Football Association of Thailand appointed Japanese expert Miyo Okamoto as head coach in January. Thailand is one of the teams that will compete in the 2022 AFC Asia Cup scheduled to be held in India from January.

Thomas Dennerby’s role

The All India Football Federation (AIFF) appointed Swedish expert Thomas Dennerby to oversee the national team. In my opinion it is a good decision. Thomas was the Sweden national women’s team coach from 2005 to 2012. He was coach of the Nigeria women’s team in 2018-2019 before taking over as the AIFF under-17 national women’s team coach that year. This year, Thomas was given the reins of the senior team.

After the AFC Women’s Asia Cup, he will move back to managing the U-17 team. Thomas’s experience will certainly play a big role in preparing the national team for the AFC Women’s Asia Cup. India is also playing host to the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in 2022.

I believe the above tournaments will give further fillip to women’s football in India.

By Shaji Prabhakaran

Football Consultant| Sports Expert| President Football Delhi (FA)| Author| Ex-FIFA/AIFF| Consultant AFC, FIFA, ICC| CIES| Development| Management|

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.