Over the course of the last two to three months, we have cherished, celebrated, championed and patronised women's sports in India.
In becoming the country's only two medallists at Rio 2016, PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik were perhaps winning more than just laurels; they were sending out messages – it is time for sports administrators and spectators in India to take women’s sport more seriously and start developing it.
So, is it just the Olympic arena in which the women outperform the men? What about football? Surely, the women with no – not negligible, just zero – infrastructure at all couldn’t be doing better than the men who have not one but two domestic leagues to themselves?
The men’s team currently ranks 148th in the world and 26th in Asia. They are in the middle of an upswing that could see them ranked as high as 137th by the time the next rankings roll around.
By contrast, the women’s team are ranked a whole 91 places ahead of their male counterparts. That's 57th in the world, and 13th in Asia. In fact, they have never dropped out of the top 100 since the rankings for women were instituted in 2003. Some years have been remarkable – in 2010, the team won all 10 matches that it played.
The format of the tournament
So, there was a certain sense of expectation when the All India Football Federation (AIFF) announced the creation of a women’s I-League, the first of its kind in India.
Kushal Das, the General Secretary of the AIFF termed it a “historic moment”. He said, “Promotion of Women’s Football stays on our priority list at All India Football Federation and this League is going to further enhance our process. Our primary aim is to qualify for the AFC Asian Cup 2018 and the League will offer the perfect platform for our Women Footballers to showcase their talent.”
The Women’s I-League 2016-17 will be played over three stages: the pre-qualifiers, the preliminary tournament, and the national finals.
The AIFF had written to all the state federations asking them if they would be interested in participating in the I-League and 10 – Orissa, Meghalaya, Delhi, Manipur, Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Assam and Pondicherry – had responded.
One team each from these states were chosen from a set of pre-qualifying tournaments conducted in each state to qualify for the next stage. These 10 teams have been divided into two groups of five for the preliminary tournament, which is currently in progress. Each team is playing the other four teams in its group, and the top team from each group would make it to the final stage.
- Royal Wahingdoh (Meghalaya)
- Alakhpura FC (Haryana)
- Rising Student FC (Odisha)
- Quartz FC (Kerala)
- Bodyline FC (Mumbai)
- Eastern Sporting Union FC (Manipur)
- KRYPHSA FC (Manipur)
- Jeppiyar Institute FC (Puducherry)
- Sudeva Moonlight FC (Delhi)
- UPFC (Uttar Pradesh)
The second round kicked off on October 17 and will conclude on October 26.
The two qualifiers will join the women’s teams of five ISL teams – Delhi Dynamos, Chennaiyin FC, Kerala Blasters, FC Pune City and Atletico de Kolkata – and those of three I-League teams – Bengaluru FC, Aizawl FC and Mumbai FC.
A total of 10 teams will compete in the National Finals, whose dates and format is yet to be decided by the AIFF.
A story of grit from Haryana
For the ladies of Alakhpura from the Bhiwani district in Haryana, no task seems big or small and no target unconquerable.
The girls from Haryana shot into the limelight when the players of Government Girls Senior Secondary School. Hisar won the U-17 Subroto Cup in 2014. The girls managed to do it for the third time in a row in 2016. Apart from the Subroto Cup, women from the team were also part of the Haryana U-19 team which narrowly lost to Manipur in the finals of the U-19 Nationals.
About 150 girls from the school had formed the Alakhpura Football Club, and they won the regional qualifiers in Haryana to be one of the 10 teams to qualify for the second round of the women’s I-League. From crowdfunding travel expenses through using bricks as goalposts to practising near a village pond, their story is one for the ages.
For all of Kushal Das’s talk of women’s football being “on priority”, the start of the pre-qualifiers was sedate and went unnoticed by many, including the football aficionados in the country. These pre-qualifiers were not telecast on television either and there was barely a ripple in the national media about the start of a very important tournament.
One can only hope that in the coming days the sport’s governing body in India will stop paying lip service and swing into action to market and promote the league aggressively, considering the fact that the women have a real shot at qualifying for the next Women’s World Cup in 2019.
It would be a travesty if talent like the ones that comes from Alakhpura were to be lost to the women’s game, especially at this nascent stage, owing to reasons beyond the football field.