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With indifferent AIFF in charge, women’s football continues slump in India

The Indian women’s national football team continues to fall in the FIFA world rankings, as current and former players fume over the indifferent attitude of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) towards the women’s game

football Updated: Jun 28, 2017 00:03 IST
Bhargab Sarmah
Despite India’s victory in the Women’s SAFF Championship in January earlier this year, the national team has slipped to 60 in the FIFA world rankings.
Despite India’s victory in the Women’s SAFF Championship in January earlier this year, the national team has slipped to 60 in the FIFA world rankings.(AIFF)

The Indian national women’s football team recently slipped four places in the latest FIFA world rankings, to drop to the 60th place from its previous position of 56.

The recent slump is a continuation of India’s gradual fall in the rankings in recent years, with the team having occupied the 49th spot back in 2013.

The All India Football Federation (AIFF) President, Praful Patel, had very recently termed the Indian men’s team’s rise to the top 100 FIFA rankings as a ‘revolution’.

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At the annual AIFF awards ceremony, he also commented on women’s football. “ I must tell you, if you put heart and soul [into it], women’s team can make [the country proud] like the men’s team,” he had said.

Patel’s remark begs a question. Who is responsible for putting one’s ‘heart and soul’ towards improving the women’s game in India?

No friendly matches since 2013

Juhi Shah had captained Mumbai-based Bodyline SC at the preliminary round of the inaugural Indian Women’s League (IWL) last year.

She says the lack of international matches is one of the key reasons behind the slump.

“Here’s where the problem lies. The national team has played no international friendly since May 2013 (vs Bahrain). The selection cum national team camps last for one month and the average number of international matches played by India in recent years is around four. And these games too, are mainly due to international tournaments,” she told Hindustan Times.

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Her sentiments are echoed by Bembem Devi, India’s most successful female footballer, and in terms of titles won, the most decorated across both genders. She retired from the sport after winning the inaugural Indian Women’s League (IWL) title with Imphal-based Eastern Sporting Union this year.

“Before the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers (in April 2017), for instance, the only matches the team played were at the South Asian Games (in February 2016) and the Women’s SAFF Championship (Decmeber 2016 – January 2017).

“Not a single friendly match against an international side was organised before the qualifiers. As a result, our performances at the event were not up to the mark, and now our ranking has gone down,” she told HT.

A makeshift national league

The AIFF recently launched the Indian Women’s League (IWL), the final round of which was held earlier this year. A total of six teams played the final round, which was held at the Ambedkar Stadium in Delhi within a span of 18 days.

But will it be enough to provide the necessary impetus for the women’s game to grow?

“I am happy that they have started a national league, but we will have to wait and see how they plan to improve and expand it. We played the inaugural edition in Delhi this year, but for the league to grow, it has to be held in home-and-away basis. If AIFF wants to develop women’s football, it has to spend some money for it,” said Bembem Devi.

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“Look, players in the men’s national team get to play in the I-League and ISL, meaning that they are always ready to be called into competitive international action. The same is not true for the women. The league started only this year. It ran for a month, and apart from it, we just have camps before international matches, which is not enough to maintain match fitness,” she added.

Juhi Shah rued the lack of interest among India’s top football clubs for the women’s league.

“We may have seen the first edition of the IWL, but only six teams participated (in the final round), out of which only one I-League club (Aizawl FC) and one ISL franchise (FC Pune City) participated. Around 9-11 teams had shown their interest in taking part,” she stated.

AIFF: Male dominated

Last year, the AIFF held its election for the executive committee. Seventeen men were elected unopposed into the committee, as women administrators remained missing from the top panel.

Subsequently, Sara Pilot, wife of Congress leader Sachin Pilot, was inducted into the committee earlier this year, while Anjali Shah, director of Premier India Football Academy (PIFA), was nominated as the second female member of the panel earlier this month.

The lack of women administrators at AIFF, as well as state bodies, has become a norm over the years. However, what is more concerning is that there hasn’t been much of a change in the administrators’ attitude towards women’s football despite FIFA delisting India from the world rankings in 2009 for being inactive for over 18 months.

“The administrators do so much for men’s football. I don’t know why they don’t put in as much effort when it comes to the women’s game,” Bembem lamented.

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“If they are not too bothered about women’s football, it is only natural that our ranking will go down,” she added.

Juhi Shah highlights the poor showing of age-group teams as another example of AIFF’s unwillingness to invest in the grassroots and the overall development of the sport.

“The performances of the U-14, U-17 and U-19 teams too haven’t been good in the past year as we have failed to progress past the opening qualifying rounds of the AFC competitions,” she explained.

“It’s time AIFF takes the blame for these poor showings on the field and starts making a proper roadmap to try and improve our stature in Asia,” she concluded.