Yumnam Kamala Devi doesn’t quite remember how old she was – maybe 8 or 9 – but she does recall sneaking out of her house one afternoon to get her hair chopped. It was the only way, Kamala thought, she could continue playing football with rest of the boys in her neighbourhood without easily getting noticed.
It was an idea she got during a whistle-stop visit to Imphal with her father. “We passed by a ground where I saw some girls playing an inter-district match. All of them had short hair and looked like boys. They were playing with so much freedom,” Kamala, 27, says.
In Thoubal, her hometown, Kamala used to be the only girl in a crowd of dozen-odd boys, playing what she calls ‘enjoyment games.’ Her parents were dead against it and there were times when things went a little out of control. “They’d beat me and say, ‘football ladkilog ka game nahi hai.’ Par mein maar khane se bhi khelti thi. (‘Football isn’t meant for women’. But I used to play despite getting a beating).”
Football for her became a metaphor for life – feigning moves, overcoming strong challenges, dribbling and scoring goals. These attributes would later make her one of India’s finest strikers – she was the Player of the Year in 2017 – but when a local coach offered her a place in his academy back then, Kamala just had one question: “Does women’s football even exist?”
The answer to Kamala’s question is both, yes and no. Women’s football exists, of course, and a popular fact is that the national team’s world ranking, 63, is higher than the men’s (102). That, though, glosses over some really harsh truths because for all practical purposes, women’s football is non-existent in the country.
Consider this: No state in India has a league for girls’ under-13, under-15 and under-18. Just 11 states have a senior women’s tournament – the All India Football Federation (AIFF) calls it ‘professional leagues’ but that would be misrepresenting the true picture because not every player is paid. At the national level, the AIFF conducts just one tournament annually for each age group.
There is no structure, no league and an extremely shallow player pool. Now, in 18 months, the country will host a World Cup. Last month, FIFA picked India ahead of France to host next year’s under-17 World Cup. The AIFF is confident this will be a cure to all their problems. But this seems more like putting an unemployed, homeless and broke person in a palace that she has to pay for to maintain and hope everything else will miraculously sort itself out.
The AIFF is turning into a master of top-down approaches. The federation’s general secretary, Kushal Das, says hosting an under-17 World Cup will give an impetus to the grassroots programme, which at present is non-existent.
“We wanted to kick-start football as far as women’s are concerned. We were very happy with the results of the under-17 World Cup, after which we started the under-14 and under-16 leagues. We wanted to replicate the same model for women by basically putting a tournament and around it, create a structure of youth leagues for women. We felt that getting a target like a under-17 women’s World Cup and preparing for it, would give us an impetus for it,” Das said.
Das points at the impact 2017 under-17 World Cup had on the men’s game. Though it is still early to judge the exact footprint that tournament has left on Indian football, there are a few legacies – the stadiums and training facilities have improved, and there is some method to the madness now. The players who competed in the 2017 U-17 World Cup are slowly graduating to senior teams while there is a visible change in the way the batches that followed them have been playing.
Here’s the thing, though. When India was awarded the men’s U-17 World Cup, they had four years to assemble a team and they had some sort of a structure — at a junior level, although disorganised, men’s football was still highly popular.
But there are few takers for the women’s game. The national team was one of the pioneers of Asian football in the 1970s. However, the first age-group tournament of any kind took place only in 2006. “It was for under-13 girls and around 24 states took part in the tournament, which was held in Cuttack,” says Football Delhi president Shaji Prabhakaran, one of the organisers of that tournament.
That turned out to be a one-off, though. Tournaments for women, national or international, have been few since then.
One just needs to look at the state of the senior team to understand the plight of the junior programme.
The last meaningful international tournament India played was the 2014 Asian Games, where the campaign was all but over even before the opening ceremony could take place. There, India lost by 10 goals each to South Korea and Thailand. It wasn’t a one-off result. Two years ago, in the qualifiers of the Asian Cup, the women lost 8-0 to North Korea, 10-0 to South Korea and 7-1 to Uzbekistan.
One of the key reasons for their sub-par performance has been lack of matches. In the whole of 2017 and 2018, the women’s team played just two friendly matches and apart from the Asian Cup qualifiers, they didn’t play an opponent outside the South Asian zone.
This year, there has been a marked improvement with the team playing almost non-stop.
Till last year, though, the age-group teams faced same problems, taking part only in the continental qualifying tournaments, where they often stumble at the first hurdle.
At the U-17 World Cup, India will be up against 15 best countries in the world. Let the enormity of the challenge sink in.
The AIFF’s strategic plans make for an interesting read.
Two out of the 44 pages in the first draft, for the period 2014-2017, are dedicated to women’s football. Some of the targets set were: a) launch women’s league in 2015; b) qualify for u-16 and u-19 AFC Championships in 2017, senior Asian Cup in 2018; and c) improve FIFA rankings to 40 and climb up to 8th in Asia.
Status check: After a year’s delay, a three-week annual tournament was launched in 2016, which the AIFF calls league. India lost in the first round of qualifiers of all three Asian championships; the current ranking is 63 in the world and 13th in Asia. The AIFF argues 13 is not ‘very far away’ from 8. But that’s like saying a top Indian sprinter is just 2 seconds off Usain Bolt’s world record mark in 100m dash.
Last month, AIFF president Praful Patel launched the second strategic plan for 2019-2022. A few key targets: a) Creation of Youth Leagues for girls at district level; b) Strengthening State Leagues for women; c) establishing an u-14 academy that will be set up “with the measurable goal of qualifying for the AFC U16 Championship 2020, AFCU19 Championship 2024 and AFC Women’s Asian Cup 2026.”
There’s only so much AIFF alone can do. At a state level, women’s football barely exists while corporates who splurge obscene amounts on the men’s game shy away from spending a few lakh for a women’s team.
Almost 70 per cent of the national team is made up of players from the North East, a major chunk coming from Manipur alone. The deep-rooted football culture and a well-defined youth structure for women is seen as the main reason why the region is as influential in women’s football as it is in men’s.
Elsewhere, though, the women’s football is crying for attention. Andhra Pradesh Football Federation president Gopalakrishna Kosaraju says he struggles to get even 30 players for junior team selection trials. “Vizag is the only big city we have and even here, not many girls play football. In remote districts, the situation is worse,” he says.
The talent is drying out in Odisha, which at one time produced several players and it is the same in Bengal. In Mumbai, the inter-school tournaments have three divisions each for boys’ U-12, U-14 and U-16 categories. But for girls, there’s just one division since the number of schools playing are a lot less. The situation is slightly better than Delhi, for example, where there are just six or seven schools that encourage women’s football.
And while Maharashtra has an under-18 league and nothing for girls in smaller age-groups, Delhi recently started an under-13 league, with nothing for players in bigger age-groups. “The problem is men’s football takes a lot of resources out. Women’s football gets whatever is left over,” Prabhakaran says. “In the last one year, I have reached out to more than 50 people but nobody is interested in funding.”
The corporates who have invested in I-League and ISL say pouring money in women’s football does not make business sense because they are inactive for 10 months in a year. The AIFF, on other hand, argues it is nearly impossible for them to have proper youth and senior leagues unless state associations and corporates do more than what they currently are in terms of investment.
A classic chicken-and-egg situation. One of the many vicious cycles Indian football finds itself in.
In absence of a uniform structure, the selections for national level tournaments are often arbitrary.
In March, the AIFF sent out a circular to all its units announcing that the junior girls’ national championships will take place in mid-April. This tournament assumes a lot of significance because the core of the under-17 World Cup preparatory camp will be picked from here.
The state associations were asked to register by Friday, two weeks before the tournament began. The sleeping state officials swung into action only after the circular was sent out and scrambled to put together a team. “We shot out letters to our district officials, who were told to send their best players for state selection trials,” a state federation official says.
Since this is an examination period, most girls chose to skip the state trials and have consequently missed the bus. The AIFF scouts will select players for the under-17 World Cup from this lot. But no one is sure if they are the best players we have in India.
This is an annual ritual, one of the biggest sources of frustration for the players. “By the time players get to know about the tournament, there are just 15-20 days remaining. Most of us go untrained and without any fitness, which results in plenty of injuries and overall poor standards,” a player says.
The ‘overall poor standards’ aren’t just restricted to the quality of play on field. A player who competed in an under-19 national championship in Chandigarh in 2010 says the ground did not have a changing room or toilets.
“Luckily, our hostel was barely a 10-minute walk away so we used to get dressed in our rooms and walk to the ground fully kitted. And since there were no urinals, we had to walk back to our hostel room every time,” she says. Yet, she calls it ‘one of the better facilities’ because the quality of the playing surface was good. At a senior national championship a couple of years later, a makeshift tent was erected behind one goalpost and that served as the changing room for both teams. “It was a see-through cloth… very embarrassing,” says another player. At another senior championship in Madhya Pradesh, the goalpost was basically a bar almost hanging loose on two poles.
Durva Vahia, the assistant coach of the under-19 team, insists the situation is improving. “It takes time but things are getting better for sure. When I went with the national team as a staff member, it was really, really good. I don’t know how boys stay but we were taken care off well,” Vahia says.
Depending on how well their team does, a player can play anything between five to 15 matches in a calendar year. Rest of the time, she is either studying or working, for football does not help them earn a living.
If you are a woman footballer in India, passion is your only driver because, on most occasions, you are expected to play for free. On national duty, Kamala says, a player gets `600 as daily allowance – that’s practically their only earning from football. That allowance was just `50 per day till 2010, when Bembem Devi, Indian women’s football’s biggest name, protested. The federation, Kamala says, increased that sum to `100 and gradually, it continued to improve. “There is nothing we earn by playing football. Of course, I got a job in Railways because of it. But we don’t get paid to play a match even in the league,” Kamala says.
Women’s league runners-up Eastern Sporting Union, based out of Manipur, could not afford to pay any of its players, according to Kamala. “The entire budget got over in travelling, lodging and other expenses. Even when I played for Manipur, they took care of our travelling, stay and food but I was told not to expect any salary.”
The clubs that can afford pay some players a salary that is anywhere in the range of `50,000 to `1 lakh. They do not necessarily pay every player on their roster, and those who do get some remuneration, get it only for the duration of the league – one month. In contrast, almost all men’s national team player earns in the range of `1 crore for one season.
“Things are the same in 2019 as they were in 2004, when I started playing,” Kamala says. “Kahan ho raha hai development?”