Nearly every football fan in the world today is aware of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Given their talent and quality. the two have cemented their places in football folklore. However, the clubs they play at and the countries they play for are also responsible for their stardom, not to mention their mind-boggling pay-checks. Outside of European football things look far more different, even more so when you look towards the continent of Asia.
India, a country that is looking to make up ground in every other sport apart from cricket, is still a hugely under-developed nation when it comes to football. There are several football fans in the country but few supporters of Indian football itself. Sunil Chhetri has been carrying the baton of increasing the sport's awareness over the last decade or so and the Indian Super League (ISL) has now a reputable tournament. But what about women's football?
It is a little-known fact that the Indian women's football team was pretty successful in the late 70s and early 80s. However, post-that, mis-management, poor investment, lack of image and awareness led to a gloomy state in what could have been a vastly successful vertical. Regardless, after two decades, the Indian national women's team has started participating actively in several tournaments and is currently striving hard to gain more recognition through a number of tours.
But there is one budding youngster who is actively making a mark in Indian women's football. Dalima Chhibber, who is still only 24, made her debut for the country at the 2016 South Asian Games and has not looked back since. Today, she plays for Indian Women's League side Gokulam Kerala and has played for India and outside the country, as well. She is an ambassador for a number of brands and also spent time in Canada, where she pursued a sports psychology course.
However, she was recently part of the Indian women's team that was withdrawn from the AFC Women's Asian Cup, which was held in India, after a rise in positive Covid-19 cases in the bio-bubble. Sportskeeda recently caught up with Dalima Chhibber as the Delhi-born footballer spoke about her disappointment following the elimination and touched upon a number of other topics.
Speaking openly about how the entire team felt following the AFC Women's Asian Cup disappointment, Dalima said:
"Yes, after the team was withdrawn from the women’s Asian Cup, we were very sad and devastated, because that is not how we wanted the tournament to come to an end. To cope with this, we have all individually taken our time and we are trying to wrap our heads around what happened. The best part is that everyone is in good health now and has fully recovered".
She said the team's desire was to come back even stronger and do better in upcoming games:
"First of all, what motivates us to come back stronger is how things ended up, and secondly, the drive and desire within us. The commitment that we have to the team is a big motivating factor in coming back stronger. Because there is so much in all of us to show what we are capable of and whenever we come back it is going to be a good game".
It is also important to understand that while the Indian team had to withdraw from the competition, they had a decent fan following in the build-up to the tournament. Many were excited at the prospect of the competition being held in India and what could happen if the team managed to surpass expectations and make their mark in the tournament.
This, however, has not always been the case as the development of women's football was often seen as a secondary objective. Part of it also had to do with the under-development of Indian football as a whole. However, over the last decade, there has been a surge of women wanting to pursue the game as a career, thanks to their personal willpower and passion for the sport.
Dalima listed the reasons behind the increased viewership in women's football in recent years, saying:
"I think what has changed over the years is the number of opportunities for women footballers. Because growing up, there was only one tournament that we would wait and prepare for all around the year and that tournament would end in a month. But now, we have a lot more opportunities. The women’s national team has also been traveling for a lot of exposure in the past few years. We have played with so many different countries. There are opportunities for young and aspiring women footballers at the district, state, and national level".
She also touched upon how recognition is helping players develop:
"Matches and games being recognized widely is a contributing factor to how the game is being brought into the limelight. Having continued support for the game is going to take us a long way. As players, what matters is that we get to play more games, and as we play, we develop more as players. I feel that if we keep going this way, the future will be bright".
Dalima Chhibber's association with Steadfast Nutrition
A healthy diet, good nutrition, and products that help an athlete recover quickly are of great importance to football players. With that in mind, Dalima Chhibber became the brand ambassador for Steadfast Nutrition in 2018, which is one of India's premium sports nutrition brands.
The nutrition company is already associated with 50 athletes across 22 different sports. From cricketers like Virat Singh, Shahbaz Nadeem, Neha Tanwar, and Pratik Bhakat to badminton stars like Chirag Sen and Deeksha Choudhary, Steadfast has an incredible bunch of talented youngsters on board.
Speaking about how she came to partner nutrition company, Dalima said:
"I started working with Steadfast Nutrition and have been with them since 2018. I came across it through social media, and I was approached through the company. At the time, it was a very new organization, but I liked what the company stood for, what they believed in and their vision and mission. Through my collaboration and association, the message that I would love to send to people in general is the importance of nutrition for athletes and players in terms of recovery, performance and good health".
Explaining the key advantages of having a good diet, she said:
"Especially so that you are ready the next day to be on the field to the fullest and become aware and mentally focused. There are a lot of advantages in having a good diet as it helps to increase the effort and output in general. This is the message that I would like to send to athletes".
Steadfast Nutrition has a number of products that have several key uses. The company has commodities which help in gaining energy or mass while also having wellness and daily essentials which help after a training session. Their recovery products are the pick of the bunch, with Dalima also being a fan of the same.
The Gokulam Kerala defender talked about her favorite Steadfast Nutrition product and explained the reasons behind:
For me, the Steadfast product that I really like to use is Protein - The Incredible Whey. Whether it is post-training or post-match, as a football player, I have to sustain myself for 90 minutes on the field. Playing for 90 minutes causes a lot of wear and tear in body protein. And having sufficient amounts of protein in my body is essential so that my muscles recover well and I am ready for the next session.
She also threw light upon the importance of vitamins:
For me, this is one of the most important supplements I use along with vitamin D3 and multivitamins, which are the other essential products. Because like I said, the amount of nutrition that you consume is helpful in the recovery process, which is highly important.
While the footballer did describe her reasons behind associating with the organization, there is no certainty as to whether every athlete uses the products they promote. A lot of the time, PR stunts are often carried out to maintain the image of an athlete but that does not necessarily mean that they use the product in everyday life.
Dalima talked about the importance of using the products one promotes, especially when it comes to consumables. She said:
"It is very important for athletes to use the products they promote, because ultimately, if I am promoting something, it becomes a part of what I stand for and who I am as an athlete. So, I feel it is important that we must believe in those products which we choose to promote. We promote what we actually feel about the product".
Dalima, who is also a brand ambassador for Vector X, spoke about how more and more brands can collaborate with women's football in India in mutually beneficial ways. She said:
"That depends on the needs and requirements of different athletes and the same goes for brands. Due to the recognition Indian football is receiving, more and more brands are starting to approach our athletes. It is like having an understanding of what you and the company stand for mutually".
Playing outside India and playing World Cup-winning teams
Experience is built when you play against the best on a regular basis. Indian footballers hardly ever get the chance to do so and those who get it, need to make it count.
Dalima had the opportunity to do so when she was studying in Canada. At the time, she had decided to join the Manitoba Bisons. Football is far more developed in western countries and players operate at a much higher level. They are faster, stronger and recover quicker too. Experiencing all of that might have been intimidating but the Indian international held her own.
Speaking about the lessons she learnt while playing outside India, she said:
"There are valuable lessons throughout my journey about where I stand as a player as compared to other female football athletes in the world. That is one lesson that you learn because it highlights how much you need to work and how much more effort you need to put in, in response to what you are already doing. Other lessons would be to believe in yourself. It is very important. You have to believe in your capabilities and to put in your best every time you go out onto the field".
Dalima went on to stress the need to learn from international players and adapt to their styles and methods of playing the game:
"These are the few lessons that have been valuable to me and have helped me grow. Because you learn when you play and understand different types of games and the different styles that are adopted around the world. Different types of players have different kinds of strengths and weaknesses, and you learn how to deal with those different players when you face them as opponents. So those things have mattered to me".
Although she did gain substantial experience during her time in Canada, there is no greater honor than playing against the best teams in the world while donning the India jersey. The women's national football team got the opportunity to do so in last year's Torneio Internacional de Futebol Feminino, which was a four-nation tournament.
While Chile and Brazil did defeat India comfortably, the encounter with Venezuela was a close affair which ended in a 1-2 loss. Regardless, the point of these games was to garner exposure and to understand the amount of work that needs to go into getting to the level of countries that are more developed in the game.
Dalima reiterated that it was the experience that mattered when playing against such established nations. She said:
"It was a great feeling playing against the Brazilian side because they are a World Cup-playing country and, like I said before, the dream for our team is to play the World Cup and that is where it all starts. Such games enable us to see what we lack and where we stand in women’s football. I feel like playing against Brazil, Venezuela, and Chile in the four-nation tournament makes you more aware, makes you understand the things that are important and the things that you need to improve".
The role of education in sports and a message to aspiring young female footballers
As mentioned before, Dalima decided to move to Canada in 2019 to further her education. The young footballer wished to pursue a Master's degree in sports psychology, which is very rare amongst athletes who are already successful in their sport.
However, some truly believe that education helps everybody along the way and the same can be said for her. While in the recent bio-bubble, she carried out a mental exercise for the team to ease the burden on their minds, especially when their loved ones were not around because of restrictions.
Shedding some more light on the topic, Dalima explained how mental health is just as important as the physical health of athletes.
"Like I have always said, the mental health of an athlete, like one’s physical health, is very important for maintaining performance levels so that you are ready, have control over your nerves and can define and control how you perform and the manner of your performance. Because, ultimately, nervousness and anxiety are helpful for athletes, but if this nervousness or anxiety is prolonged and gets out of control, it hampers the decision-making process. It also leads to an athlete being unable to make rational decisions amidst playing the game, and that, in turn, can harm performance levels".
Speaking about the need to pay attention to mental health, she said:
"It is also very important to shed light on mental health as athletes play several games at a stretch. If you lose a game, experience failure, get an injury or suffer pain, you need to get yourself ready and prepare for the next game. Because you don’t have control over the past. Being mentally able to accept these facts, reflecting on one’s performances and learning from the mistakes that happen comes down to mental health and how an athlete is able to cope up with the demands of the sport, such as training sessions and injuries".
She also pinpointed how poor mental health can affect not only one's individual display but also the team's performance.
"All in all, it is very important to maintain the mental health of athletes so that they are able to make sound decisions, are in the mindset to perform and have control over their nerves since you have to make decisions in a matter of seconds in a game of football. These decisions can define the performance of a team and decide how you play and how you look as a player on a particular day. It all comes down to how you think, because till the time you are not in the right mind set, you cannot do much physically".
While Dalima has been able to achieve a lot in her career, she has also secured an education in an important field. This has been possible because of the support her parents have provided throughout her journey as an amateur footballer.
Despite being in the 21st century, there are still several families in India who believe that women are not meant to "pursue a career". Also, when it comes to industries heavily dominated by men, the support is even less because their conservative and regressive thinking cannot digest the fact that women can do the same things as men, and perhaps even better. Hence, several young female footballers have to fight through these issues and work harder than maybe a young boy who is aspiring to make a name in the sport.
Dalima sent a message to today's generation of female athletes who wish to pursue sports as their career.
"I feel that for girls who are aspiring to be footballers and fail to find the support, there is always someone to help. If it's not your parents, then I guess it could be your coach. Talk to your coach. Be open with them about what you expect from games and what your dreams are. And ask your coach to tell your parents because usually when your parents or coaches are not aware of certain things, they fail to support you, your ambitions or your dreams. Also, believe in your dreams. Because no one else is going to do it for you, but you have to believe in your dreams".
She went on to claim how determination and desire are important in the journey of a female athlete:
What you think you are capable of, you can actually achieve it, and it is the dream that you can see for yourself that matters and not that of others because they don’t know about your capabilities. Within you, you know what you are capable of, what you stand for, and what you can achieve. If you put your mind to it, there would always be someone who would support you and hear you out. Whether it is your parents, coaches or your friends, just talk to them. Make them aware of your situation. Talk to them about your dreams. Work hard, put in all the effort. Be determined, dedicated, and that is all that counts at the end of the day.
Dalima may only be 24 years old but there is so much one can learn from her. Pursuing your ambitions and dreams may be a long and tedious journey, but self-belief is extremely important, as is the willpower to do things even if the world stands against you.
The Delhite is an established footballer in the Indian women's national side today but there several niggling issues which restricts the team from reaching its potential. Lack of support, investment, and awareness are certainly prime issues but those are not all the things a female athlete has to tackle to gain recognition in the game.
Regardless, Dalima Chhibber can be seen as an inspiration today, given the brands she aligns with and her motto towards life itself. One would hope that India will see many more like her in the coming years, especially since there is now a role model to look up to.