The All India Football Federation (AIFF) has been a catalyst for the meteoric rise of football standards in India. Owing to the resounding success of the Indian Super League and the U-17 Men's World Cup, Indian football has attracted a lot more of the attention from sports aficionados in India.
The efforts undertaken by the AIFF to improve the standards of the sport in states such as Mizoram, Jammu & Kashmir among other areas has also played a massive role in promoting the sport in the country, with the grassroots level programs handing a platform for budding footballers to make an impression and push for a spot in their state team and ultimately the national team.
At the Global Institute of Sports Business India (GISB), Aonkar Sawant was handed the rare opportunity to interact with one of the key individuals behind the rise of Indian Football – Former Head, Grassroots Development – All India Football Federation & Asian Football Confederation, Grassroots Panel Member – Ms Anju Turambekar who, in an exclusive interaction spoke about the overall scope of football in the country.
Q1. In the video shared by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) you mentioned that you came across a poster on your school notice board about an opportunity for girls to play football. This was the catalyst for your love of the sport. At the time how did you manage to overcome the stereotypes of women playing football?
Honestly, before breaking the stereotypes, I had to take the critical decision myself to step on the field as I was completely unaware of a sport called “Football” and how it’s played or what are its benefits. The initial stages of my life were very tough in terms of travelling to school and the environment in my family was very different. I was into farming, household chores, academics and athletics. So, convincing myself to get on the field was a huge task for me. Honestly, I was scared that if people find out I am into football, what am I going to tell my parents and fellow villagers because football was a men’s game back then and due to lack of communication facilities like television or newspapers there was less awareness that women can play football too. At that time, I was fearful of society & whether or not the people in my life would support my decision.
It was a long and gruelling journey, dealing with various issues like family and fellow villagers but in the end, it is always satisfying to have been playing and contributing to the beautiful game. A large number of people had concerns that a girl is playing football with boys, wearing shorts and reaching home late after school. But I was always determined about playing football due to my love for the game. I never gave up.
I worked hard every single day hoping and dreaming big. Though the challenges were a matter of everyday life, I was determined to do what I love. There were days where my parents were not happy about my decision as they were under the impression that their daughter was playing a boy’s game. However, to me, it seemed completely natural as they were oblivious to the opportunities that were going to be created for me and ultimately shape my life through pursuing football.
Over time, things began to change slowly and steadily after I played my first nationals tournament representing the state of Maharashtra. I started making headlines in various local newspapers as few people started noticing and appreciating my accomplishments but my parents remained unconvinced for many years. I moved city to city, mostly shuffling between Pune and Mumbai at the initial phase of my career and began to support my family financially. Finally, after many years the moment I had been waiting for had arrived. My family accepted that football was a way of life for me. There was no going back.
Q2. Due to the large following of cricket in India, children usually begin to take up the sport at an early age. How do you think we can encourage more children to take up the game of football?
Take my example, at an early age I was a fan of cricket myself. The whole village used to gather at the neighbour’s house who at the time, had the only television in the village to watch the Indian team play cricket. During those days the influence of cricket was far higher than any other sport. There were just a few people in my village playing football but that was enough for me to take up the game.
Fast forward to present times, it’s been almost six years working with the AIFF and I am so glad that the No.1 sport in the world is finally cementing its place in India. Thanks to Indian Super League (ISL) and FIFA U-17 Men’s World Cup held in India, people are now aware of football and we have seen the increasing development of the game on and off the pitch. There are a lot of activities conducted by the AIFF like the youth football leagues conducted in metropolitan cities and villages which has enabled the sport to gain traction.
Unlike cricket, people believe football is a low-cost game and can be played by any gender. Football has the power to break any social stereotype and unite people like no other sport. This has been one of the key drivers for the growth of the game across the length and breadth of the nation. Many states like Chhattisgarh, have taken up grassroots football initiatives like coach education and bringing together boys and girls to play the sport together. These are massive changes for me.
Q3. Do you believe the efforts taken by Global Footballing Powerhouses, most notably the Premier League and La Liga will help create a sustainable footballing culture across the country?
Any initiative to develop sport is crucial. It is encouraging to see these entities take the initiative of growing the sport in India and providing children with world-class coaching and facilities at an early age. However, I believe that if we are to develop football in India, these entities must have an in-depth understanding of the sports ecosystem of the country and frame their strategy accordingly. I strongly believe that entities like the Premier League have done a great job in helping us build the football industry in India.
Q4. We see that Mizoram is the leading state in producing quality footballers for the Indian national team. How are the grassroots programs set up in other states to produce the same level of talent across the country?
Mizoram was the pilot project for a grassroots development plan in India. The AIFF launched the Initiative in 2012. Along with Mizoram, states like Jammu & Kashmir, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh and Meghalaya are the states where the grassroots programs are currently ongoing successfully. Grassroots programs focus on mass participation. No matter which state, we need an increased number of players playing in a particular age group so we have a larger talent pool to pick for the national team.
We are developing grassroots initiatives in various states across the country but have not managed to set up sustainable programs in all states. This should be the next target. The focus should be to make our grassroots programs active in these states so that we get a larger pool of talent for the national team and have players from various states creating a large cultural diversity for the national team which symbolises the country.
Q5. There are a lot of up and coming leagues like the Kabaddi, Badminton & the yet to commence Kho-Kho League. How do you think these leagues/sports should design their own grassroots initiatives?
Through my travels across the country, I have had the privilege of familiarizing myself with a few well established as well as up and coming sports. It is refreshing to see the culture of sports leagues being established across the country. All I could say is that these leagues are providing the right type of exposure to the next generation. They are motivating the next generation of sportsmen and women to see sports as a viable career. We can witness this change in metropolitan cities and villages where leagues are providing exposure to sports and grassroots initiatives creating a transformational mindset amongst parents to witness sports as a lucrative career pathway.
For sports in India to thrive the responsibility of growing a sport should not fall solely on leagues and federations alone but also on the shoulders of every parent, school, college, institute, university, club and academy. Providing a conducive playing atmosphere along with the right platform is the responsibility of all stakeholders.
Q6/ The U-17 Women’s FIFA World Cup is being held in India this year. How does the AIFF plan to leverage this event to increase grassroots programs and their initiatives across the country?
It is a step in the right direction for the AIFF and all the stake-holders who put together the FIFA Men’s U-17 World Cup held in India during 2017. India is now ready to host a mega event for women. This is going to have a rippling effect to encourage girls and women to take up football across the country. This tournament will provide a platform for individuals to dream big and dreaming big enables us to develop more determined and technically sound footballers, coaches and administrators for the women’s game.
Hosting another FIFA World Cup in the country is no small feat. We have seen tremendous growth in women’s football globally. This tournament allows the women of India to showcase their talent and prove themselves on a global platform. Not only players but even coaches are encouraged and motivated with the U-17 FIFA Women’s World Cup being hosted in India. It is an opportunity for them to showcase their skillsets against the best coaches in youth football from across the world. This tournament acts as a catalyst for not only the production of quality women’s footballers but creates a healthier and more accepting society for women.