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Asian Cup: Moment of truth for Indian women’s football

Hosting the Asian Cup is part of AIFF's top-down approach but the tournament is a golden opportunity for the hosts to prove mettle; India play Iran on Thursday.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | Mumbai |
Updated: January 20, 2022 3:42:14 pm
the Asian Cup, which kicks off on Thursday in Mumbai, has the potential to become the turning point for women’s football in India. (Twitter/Indian Football Team)

Growing up in Thoubal, Manipur, Yumnam Kamala Devi didn’t know there was such a thing called women’s football.

She’d cut her hair short to be ‘one of the boys’; she’d sneak out of her house to avoid facing the wrath of her parents for playing a ‘boys’ game’; she’d humiliate other players with her body feints and dribbles, and score goals for fun, without ever knowing there was a professional set-up.

Kamala, who was All India Football Federation’s Player of the Year in 2017, wasn’t the only one to think so.

Save for the last couple of years, women’s football has virtually been non-existent in the country. There has been no youth programme, more than half of the states don’t have a tournament for senior players, the domestic league lasts for barely a couple of months and the last time the national team played an international tournament of some significance was the 2014 Asian Games.

In the total absence of a structure and with very limited opportunities to make a living from it, the only thing that kept Kamala and her teammates driven was – at the risk of sounding too cliché – their passion for the game.

In this context, the Asian Cup, which kicks off on Thursday in Mumbai, has the potential to become the turning point for women’s football in India. The hosting of the continental showpiece event is in continuation of the AIFF’s top-down approach, in which they bring big-ticket tournaments to the country and then build an ecosystem around it.

Top-down approach

This was first tried with the under-17 men’s World Cup in 2017, which was used to strengthen the grassroots. The jury is still out whether it brought any long-lasting change but that hasn’t stopped the federation from taking a similar path for the women’s game by bringing the Asian Cup and the under-17 World Cup, which will be held in October this year, to the country.

Again, how helpful will this be in the long term, no one knows. But the pressure of fielding a competitive team has forced the AIFF to course correct.

Thanks to the Asian Cup, the team got its first foreign coach, Sweden’s Thomas Dennerby, with a proper pedigree. The players got the facilities and the attention they deserved. And have played more matches against opponents from outside the South Asian zone since 2019 compared to an entire decade before that.
For all the attention that has been showered upon them in the last few months, it’s what the team, led by Loitongbam Ashalata Devi, does in the next 10 days that may actually define the way forward for women’s football.

India begin their campaign on Thursday against Asian Cup debutants Iran. Once they navigate past a tricky opener, they will face Chinese Taipei. India beat them 1-0 in October last year and it’s a match coach Dennerby believes his team can win. In fact, it’s a match they will have to win to stand a chance to progress to the quarterfinals given their final group-stage opponent are eight-time champions China, whom they will face on January 26.

The fact that there is even a talk about India reaching the quarterfinals shows how much the team has improved recently. In 2017, during the qualifiers for the 2018 Asian Cup, India played three matches, lost all three, conceded 25 goals and scored just one. Before that, in the 2014 Asian Games, the team was thumped 10-0 by both South Korea and Thailand.

Playing with speed, flair

The greater attention on their fitness, technical and tactical training, along with exposure trips to Brazil, Sweden, Turkey, Bahrain and the UAE means such lopsided score lines are now rare.
Instead, India, ranked 55 in the world and 11 in Asia, play with flair and freedom seldom seen in the earlier teams. One of the youngest sides in the competition – with an average age of 23, and with 15 out of the 23 players below the age of 25 – India play with a lot of speed although it remains to be seen if they can maintain the same level of intensity throughout.

There is, however, enough quality in the team to see them meet their first target, reaching the quarterfinals.

Goalkeeper Aditi Chauhan has grown in stature since her stint with West Ham Ladies; captain Ashalata Devi, one of the team’s most experienced players and one of the final three nominees for Asia’s Player of the Year in 2019, will lead the defence, where she will pair up with the tournament’s youngest player, 16-year-old Shilky Devi Hemam; midfielder Indumathi Kathiresan has been instrumental in the midfield while Dangmei Grace and Manisha Kalyan, who scored against Brazil, will lead the forward line.
These national team stars, who’ve played in obscurity for almost their entire career, will suddenly share the stage with some of the sport’s global icons, including Australia’s Sam Kerr, who finished second in the FIFA Best Awards earlier this week, her Chelsea teammate Ji So-yun of South Korea and Japan’s Saki Kumagai, who plays for Bayern Munich.

World Cup qualification

There’s an additional carrot, too – a place in the 2023 World Cup. Asia has six direct slots, of which one has already been handed to Australia, who’ll co-host the tournament with New Zealand. The 11 other teams will fight for the remaining five direct berths, while two other teams will qualify for the intercontinental playoff. That means if India manage to meet their target of reaching the quarterfinals, they’ll come closer than ever before to a World Cup spot.

However, any talk of the World Cup is still premature. Even Dennerby is unsure of how his team will manage the pressure and expectations in a serious tournament, having only played in friendly matches so far where not much is at stake.

For India, the tournament will be a success even if it manages to put sustained focus on women’s football. “It’s a dream even to play in a tournament like this. Now, we have to build on this dream,” Ashalata, who like Kamala used to sneak out of her house and play with boys, says. Chauhan adds: “We are fighting for women’s football, and we hope to make some impact in our country, no matter how small it is.”

After years of neglect, this is their moment under the sun.

Two Covid cases in the Indian team

Two members of the Indian women’s team tested positive for Covid-19, and are currently in isolation at a designated medical care facility, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) said in a statement on Wednesday. It is learnt that one of the players was set to start in the team’s opening match against Iran on Thursday. The AIFF, however, has not revealed the identities of the infected people.

India’s schedule:
vs Iran, January 20
vs Chinese Taipei, January 23
vs China, January 26

All matches live on Eurosport, 7.30pm

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