Having played no international fixtures for a period of two years, the Indian women’s national football team languished on the fringes of international football eight years ago. Ranked 92 in the world by the end of 2009, they have come a long way since. The very next year saw them win ten matches out of ten and as a result, they were able to leapfrog to 56th place on the charts.
They have done well to maintain their ranking over the past few seasons and even broke into the top-50 when they achieved a peak ranking of 49 at the end of 2013. “In the next five to six years, we should be able to improve upon our ranking greatly,” says Dalima Chhibber, who is a regular in midfield for the national side. “I think somewhere between 38 and 42 will be great a few years down the line.”
With the way the Indian eves have performed recently, Chhibber’s claim seems like a reasonable target. In February last year, the team clinched the gold medal at the South Asian Games (SAG) in Guwahati, where they defeated Nepal 4-0 in the final and remained unbeaten throughout, conceding just the solitary goal in the five matches they played.
The first week of 2017 saw them lift their fourth South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship crown as well, where they were victorious in all their games, barring a goalless draw against Bangladesh. They won the final by a comfortable 3-1 scoreline, with goals from Dangmei Grace, Sasmita Malik and Indumathi Kathiresan.
However, one issue that has been plaguing women’s football is the lack of professionalism and opportunities in the country. While the male footballers have the I-League and Indian Super League (ISL) to ply their trade, their female counterparts have limited options. To make a living, they are forced to look to outside the sport and work part-time.
Bala Devi and Oinam Bembem Devi, who have been the pillars of the national team over the last few years, both have worked with the Manipur Police in addition to representing the national football team. Chhibber, who is currently studying psychology at Delhi University’s Jesus and Mary College, also aims to pursue a degree in sports psychology from abroad, where she wishes to continue her footballing career as well.
Exposure to high-quality competition and an assembly line that finds and nurtures young talent is a must-have if any team is to make any serious progress. A major step in this direction was taken towards the end of January this year with the launch of the inaugural Indian Women’s League (IWL). It saw six teams from various parts of the country face off against each other after a preliminary round in 2016 and the number of teams is planned to be increased to 16 in the next edition.
It was Eastern Sporting Union (ESU) from Manipur that claimed victory, defeating Rising Student Club from Odisha in the final. They were led by former national team skipper Bembem Devi, who was captain and coach of the side and was full of praise for the tournament. She had spoken about the league in a previous interview with Sportskeeda, “Such initiatives are very important of course. It helps us become much more financially secure and for the younger players, it is a wonderful experience for the breaking the ice and make the jump to the senior level smoothly.”
Chhibber was captain of FC Pune City, who reached the semifinals of the tournament, and is of the opinion that initiatives such as the IWL will go a long way in helping the sport grow in the country. “Along with the financial support, the league helps players gain recognition. We hope to see an increase in pay and the number of teams in future editions. More opportunities and better level of competition will only help in the overall growth process,” she said.
Such leagues are a vital opportunity for young players, with little or no senior experience, to gain invaluable exposure and improve the technical as well as mental aspects of their game. Chibber added, "Unlike teams like ESU and Rising Students, we had just three players who had attended a senior national camp. The rest of the squad was relatively inexperienced and consisted of newcomers, who had only represented their states."
While the likes of ESU had a host of senior and seasoned players in the starting XI, the Pune City side was quite young and even featured a 12-year old named Senorita Nongpluh in its ranks! The pint-sized midfield dynamo, who wasn't even born when Bembem Devi made her international debut, has been one of the finds of the IWL and has a bright future ahead of her. “There are times when I feel scared, but football is my life and I have worked hard to get where I am today. It only gets better from here,” she said.
With two regional trophies under their belt, the Indian eves are now looking to swim through deeper continental waters as they now prepare for the qualifiers of the 2018 AFC Women’s Asian Cup, which begin from April 3. Placed in Group B, they have a tough task ahead of them as they vie for a single qualifying place against South Korea, Uzbekistan, North Korea and Hong Kong.
Confidence is running high and they will have to be at their best to stand a chance of making it to the main competition in Jordan next year. The last few months have seen the side make rapid progress and efforts such as the IWL will surely start to bear fruit in the coming years. It is a long, long way to the top but it can surely be said that the Indian team is on the right track!