For a generation of football fans in India, Manisha Kalyan, a winger for the Senior Women’s National Team, became the first Indian to score a goal against any Senior National Brazil side. Growing up on Brazil’s dominance in men’s football through the 1990s and 2000s, it is unfathomable that a 19-year-old from India would end up scoring against the South American heavyweights in senior football, men’s or women’s.
India was chosen to be a part of Formiga’s retirement party – the 41-year Brazil legend retiring after 234 appearances, seven Olympics, and seven World Cups – a glorious career spanning 26 years. Some of the Blue Tigresses could scarcely believe it – they’d get to rub shoulders with the likes of Formiga and Marta – giants of the modern women’s game.
After an opening blitz by Brazil, India equalized through Manisha and held their own in the first half, going into half-time trailing only by a single goal. The final scoreline, 6-1, may seem lopsided but the Indian women could hardly have done better given the paucity of resources at their disposal. Their opponents, ranked 50 places higher, have a more robust domestic structure and richer football culture owing to the fact that football is the number one sport in Brazil.
Brazil’s domestic women’s league runs for six months, has 64 teams across 3 divisions, and also has a cup competition called the Copa do Brasil. The Indian Women’s League has 12 teams split into two groups and the winner plays a maximum of seven matches over a 20-day period.
As one prominent member of the Women’s National Team (WNT), who did not wish to be named, put it, “We wilted in the second half. Their intensity was too much for us to handle. Unfortunately, our domestic structure doesn’t enable us to play at this level.”
Our domestic structure doesn’t enable us to play at this level.
This is the crux of Indian women’s football in a nutshell; a story of unfulfilled potential unaided and unabetted by a system with glaring problems at the foundational levels.
Country Name Started in Current Structure No. of Teams Format Avg. No. of games League span Japan Nadeshiko League 1989 3 Tiers with Promotion-Relegation 10 (Tier 1)10 (Tier 2)12 (Tier 3) Once home & away 25-30 9 months China Chinese Women’s Super League 1997 Single Tier 8 One home away 15-20 5 months Australia W League 2008 Single Tier 9 League and knockout 12-18 4-5 months Thailand Thai Women’s League 2009 Single Tier 10 Group and knockout 12-18 5 months South Korea WK League 2009 Single Tier 8 Twice home & away 28-32 8 months Vietnam VWSL 1998 Single Tier 8 Once home & away 14 3 months Myanmar MWL 2016 Single Tier 8 Once home & away 12-15 6 months India IWL 2017 Single Tier 12 Group and knockout 5-7 20 days
Game-Time: A Big Miss Game
FIFA’s guidelines for top-level footballers is that they play 3500-4500 minutes, between 40-50 games a season for them to reach their top potential. A large chunk of Indian women footballers is lucky if they get 25% of the prescribed game-time in a year.
The Indian Women’s League in its current format is five games long in the group stage, and the Senior Women’s National Football Championships has the state teams playing three games. This is understandable given the high logistical cost – accommodation, transport, food – of playing in a centralized venue for an extended period.
The onus of fulfilling game-time thus falls on the state leagues and hyper-localized competitions where the focus can be on giving the players a sizeable run of matches and not on operational and logistical expenditure.
State League Max no of games for a team Kanyashree Cup (West Bengal) 12 Manipur Women’s League 5 Punjab Women’s League 3 Football Delhi Women’s League 7 Kerala Women’s League 10 Karnataka Women’s Super Division League 9 GFA Vedanta Women’s League (Goa) 5 Odisha Women’s Football League 10 Madhya Pradesh Women’s Football League 6
Padma Shri Awardee and long-term Indian women’s team captain Oinam Bembem Devi cites the decline in Manipur as an example. The state has won 20 out of a possible 25 titles in the Senior Women’s National Football Championships (NFC), a clear powerhouse. On four other occasions, it has reached the final, meaning that the state has failed to make the summit clash only once in 25 appearances. Given that 32 teams will participate in the women’s NFC starting November 28 in Kerala, it is remarkable consistency shown by the north-eastern state.
“We were so good and so dominant because we used to play 25-30 games in an era when other states barring a few – Bengal, Odisha, Goa – never took the women’s game seriously. We had an impressive pool of players and cohesion because we trained and played very often. These days, the state league has six teams and five matches each,” said Bembem.
Barring a few – Bengal, Odisha, Goa – never took the women’s game seriously.
For most of the women at the National Championships, it will be their only chance to catch the eye of national team scouts through the year apart from the IWL. In the absence of qualitative data and limited game-time in state leagues, three games at the women’s NFC remains a bare-bones scouting platform. Between 2011 and 2014, the Women’s NFC wasn’t held.
Mithila Ramani, a well-known voice in Indian women’s football and player for the Karnataka state team argues that this reduces the player pool that the WNT has to pick from.
“People have to understand that there’s a WNT, but no one is focusing on leagues below those. The change is happening in terms of the local leagues, and I moved to Bangalore for the opportunity to play, as there was no active league happening in Tamil Nadu at the time,” she said. “It’s not just the state leagues, but also the Khelo India and the Reliance Youth Foundation games. I think you can diversify the pool in which you can select players. I hope 1-2 from the senior nationals make it to the WNT.”
Ramani, originally from Chennai, played for Parikrama FC in the Karnataka women’s super division league. Her expectations from the state league are also limited. “Last year, we played nine games in the state league. I hope we can play at least 12 games this time,” she said.
The Need For Mega Events
Indian women’s football has seen a flurry of activity recently, including the hosting of the upcoming AFC Women’s Asian Cup in January 2022 and the Under-17 women’s World Cup later in the same year (originally supposed to have been held in 2020, postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic). India qualified for both events by virtue of being hosts.
Bembem’s career for India spanned a remarkable 22 years (1995-2016) and 85 matches. Despite the barrage of hashtags and glare on the women’s NT these days due to the upcoming mega-events, Bembem says that the side has clearly seen better days.
“In 1999, we were one game away from qualifying for the World Cup on merit. We played Japan and the only goal was scored by Homare Sawa,” she said.
Japan would go on to win the Women’s World Cup in 2011 while India hasn’t qualified for the Asian Cup on merit (through the qualification process) since 2003, despite being runners-up in 1979 and 1983. Women’s football in the country had been administered by the Women’s Football Federation of India from 1975 to 1992 when it was decided that the All India Football Federation (AIFF) would be the sole authority responsible for women’s football in the country. In 2009, India would hit a historic low after being de-listed from the FIFA world rankings due to 18 months of inactivity.
Despite these two mega-events, state leagues remain threadbare and there are no age group competitions run nationally by the AIFF or the State Federations for the women. A quick glance at India’s record across qualifiers for major events (above) shows that India may not have justified its inclusion at these tournaments on merit.
For Bembem, the upcoming Asian Cup where India will be playing against China, Chinese Taipei, and Iran in the group stage, is crucial for the growth of the team. “We are playing at this level after a long time. We need to ensure we sort out our endurance concerns prior to the tournament. That can only happen by playing more matches,” she said.
The team, coached by Swede Thomas Dennerby, may still put up a good showing at the Asian Cup to be held in Maharashtra but it is clear that bigger problems plague the domestic game than participation at mega tournaments.
A lack of viable careers
In its 2014-17 Strategic Plan, AIFF had allocated Rs 30 crores for the men’s National team and Rs 57 crores towards the I-League, whereas it had allocated Rs 15.37 crores towards the women’s national team and no money whatsoever towards a women’s league.
When the IWL did start in 2017, the AIFF spend Rs 80 lakhs for the 2017 edition and Rs 82.5 lakhs for the 2018 season. In comparison, the expenditure on the I-League 17-18 was Rs 13.21 crores and I-League 18-19 was Rs 12.44 crores. The travel subsidy given to I-League teams in 2020-21 was Rs 45 lakhs to each of the 11 teams.
Despite the AIFF’s insistence on contracts for women, most teams in the country do not pay their players. A prominent player, on condition of anonymity, said, “A lot of teams make their players sign consent forms instead. If you get a serious injury while playing, the team can’t be held responsible and won’t pay for your recuperation expenses. There is no professional contract.”
“Gokulam Kerala are now handing out proper contracts to the national teamers. For the majority of my career, we didn’t get paid by teams. Even the refusal by teams to field women’s sides is bizarre. Why is women’s football a waste of money while men’s teams are an investment,” asked Bembem.
For Mithila Ramani, the lack of a viable career option sees a lot of women leaving football post the completion of their college courses.
“I have to do a day job, as do a lot of other players. A significant chunk of players leaves senior women’s football after graduation because there is no money to be made while playing football. It should not be viewed as a hobby but as an industry. If it is seen as an investment, I feel it should start from the fact being a women’s footballer is seen as a job,” she said.
When Bembem started playing for the national team in 1995, the daily allowance was Rs 25. It grew to Rs 100 later after a complaint by Bembem and her fellow players that the men were receiving Rs 600 at the time.
The call for equality is a fight that is seen throughout the world of women’s football. The US women’s national team, which has won four World Cups, launched a wage discrimination lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation in 2016.
The first-ever winner of the Ballon d’Or Feminin – one of the most prestigious individual awards for a woman footballer, Norway’s Ada Hegerberg decided to stop representing her national team after disputes with the Norwegian Football Federation over their handling of women’s football.
Bembem has the last word on this. “We wear boots; they (the men) wear boots. They play 90 minutes; so do we. Why should we be treated any differently?”