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India has to wake up to women football

New Delhi: In 2017, photographs of a young girl, her face covered, hurling stones in the streets of Srinagar went viral. She was soon identified as Afshan Ashiq, a footballer from the state. What followed was a flood of unwanted attention and a label: ‘stone-pelter turned footballer’.

“It’s funny actually. I mean, I have always been a footballer; that was one stray incident. They were saying it as if stone pelting is some kind of profession,” says Ashiq. Two years after the incident, she has found the label difficult to shed.

Ashiq wants to be known for what she really does—play football. She is the goalkeeper for her state team. She is an All India Football Federation (AIFF)-licensed coach. She plays in the Indian Women’s League (IWL).

For a country that will host the 2020 U-17 Women’s World Cup and is keen on bidding for the 2022 Asian Cup, women’s football barely features on the map.

Things are far from ideal in the men’s game, but at least they play for most of the year. India’s women don’t. Their league, if you can call it that, lasts all of 17 days.

Five state leagues—including those of traditional football powerhouses Goa and Maharashtra, were de-recognised for reasons ranging from improper players’ registration to a lack of teams late last December.

Between May, 2013 and January, 2019 the Indian senior women’s national team played just one international friendly (the men’s team played 19 friendlies in the same period, in itself an abysmally low number).

In that same period, the women played a total of 32 games, including the friendly; 29 of these came in tournaments the All India Football Federation is obligated to send teams to—Asian Cup qualification, South Asian Games, South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Women’s Championship, among others. Roughly half those games came in the SAFF Women’s Championship and the South Asian Games.

In fact, after India were de-listed from the global women’s rankings by FIFA in 2010 for failing a play a single international game in a 27-month period, the SAFF Women’s Championship became a regular fixture in the international calendar for India. Initiated in late 2010, India has convincingly won all five editions since, the tournament hardly being a competitive challenge.

The AIFF didn’t hold the senior national championships between 2011 and 2014. Now the tournament lasts for around two weeks on average and provides a majority of teams with just three group games—barely an improvement.

Kashmir footballer Ashiq, 24, embodies the struggles of a woman playing the beautiful game in India. With little football to play in J&K, she moved to Mumbai in 2017 to join the Premier Indian Football Academy’s team. This season, she joined Kolhapur City which plays in the IWL.

“This (IWL) is the only platform from which you can get selected for India,” she says.

This solitary route to the national team offers just a handful of matches a year.

The IWL, which began in 2017, had four teams entering through qualifiers and two as direct entrants in its first edition.

The teams played each other once before the semi-finals. A year later, the IWL final round had seven teams, meaning one game more per team. This year there were 12 teams. But with the teams split into two groups of six, they played a game less than 2018.

Moreover, IWL isn’t incentive enough for teams to build squads. Despite there being no promotion or relegation, Rising Student’s Club, from Cuttack, are the only side to have participated in all three seasons. Four of the seven clubs that participated in 2018 didn’t turn up this time.

Two of the 12 teams in the 2019 IWL season—SSB and Manipur Police—were government outfits and a third was from the Sports Authority of India (SAI), Cuttack.

Kerala discontinued the state league after one season in 2015.

For the senior women’s national team, 2019 has been a good year so far. India played 11 international friendlies between January to March, in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Turkey and at home in the Gold Cup invitational tournament. These games were organised to prepare for the SAFF Women’s Championship and the second round of Olympic qualifiers for which India had qualified for the first time.

These international matches were made possible after the Sports Authority of India (SAI) signed an agreement with AIFF last year to fund exposure trips for women’s football.

The team went on to successfully defend the SAFF title, making it five titles in as many editions. India failed to progress to the next stage of the Olympic qualifiers by a whisker, losing out on goal difference after a 3-3 draw against Myanmar in the last game.

India’s participation in the Olympic qualifiers though was marred by seven players pulling out, accusing head coach Maymol Rocky and assistant-coach Chaoba Devi of misbehaviour and favouritism.

The seven included Bala Devi. Considered the best player of her generation, Bala Devi scored 26 goals in seven games at this season’s IWL. Kamala Devi, 2017 AIFF Woman Player of the Year, also joined the boycott, as did five other players from Manipur.

While the players’ boycott started over issues with the coach, it continued for the next few months due to what they allege as the absence of a grievance redressal mechanism for women’s national team players.

“We had called and texted members of the AIFF’s women’s department trying to explain our grievances. All these calls and texts were ignored. Then we wrote a letter to the AIFF explaining why we were pulling out of the national team camp. The federation never responded to or acknowledged our attempts to reach out to them, forget about addressing the issue itself,” alleged one of the players.

This month, Bala, only one from the seven players to have received a call-up again, ended her boycott and joined the national team camp. But the impasse has not ended.

One of the remaining six players allege that the federation not only cut off all forms of communication with them following their complaint but has also indicated that they will not be considered again for international duty. “They can’t keep Bala out because the issue may blow up if your best player is missing for too long. But for us, from everything we have heard through our friends in the team, our India careers are over,” she alleged.

On her part, coach Rocky said she would have no problem picking players as long they are in form. “At IWL, the players came and greeted me. I was shocked but also happy to realise that they had nothing personal against me,” she said over a phone call.

Whatever the exact nature of the fight, what suffers is Indian women’s football.

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