While their male counterparts have enjoyed ample opportunities to rub shoulders with renowned footballers, courtesy the Nehru Gold Cup and numerous exposure tours, the India national women’s team has rarely had any chances to lock horns with non-Asian teams.

All that seemed to have changed back in 1994, when J Jayalalithaa, the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, got to know about their deprivation and went on to organise a tournament on her own in the city of Madras.

The backdrop

In 1991, following the Asian Women’s Football Federation meeting in Bangkok, the sports ministry asked the Women’s Football Federation of India to merge with the All India Football Federation.

While the friction between them continued till mid-1995 when the two parties finally settled outside the court, by 1993, the New Delhi-based AIFF had already taken the driver’s seat in the merged body.

At the other end of the country, the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Madras (as it was known then) was chosen for hosting the 10th Jawaharlal Nehru Gold Cup for the men’s team which also involved major footballing powers like Finland, Romania and Russia.

The venue had to be demolished and reconstructed to the standard of an international stadium, but the state government showed remarkable alacrity to complete the Rs 40 crore project in less than nine months.

While the flagship tournament for the men’s team was over with IM Vijayan being named as the best player, Jayalalithaa was eager to help the women’s team as well. She got to know that the women’s team had never taken part in any international tournament, so went on to organise one.

“Jayalalithaa had herself taken the initiative in that respect and the AIFF has decided to support the move to host the first international soccer tourney (sic) in the country,” Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi, the contemporary president of the governing body was quoted as saying by the Times of India on July 18, 1994.

A meeting of the big forces of women’s football

It was not tough to guess the name of the competition though. During that year, the Mudumalai forest was renamed as the Jayalalithaa Wildlife Sanctuary, the Jayalalithaa Sports Village was coming up keeping in mind the ensuing South Asian Federation Games while a state government-developed film city was also named after her.

The football tournament was not going to be an exception and was named the Dr Jayalalithaa Gold Cup. The organisers, however, managed to persuade some of the big forces of women’s football in sending their first teams. Russia, Ghana, New Zealand and Bulgaria were pooled in Group A while the other group consisted of Hungary, Chile and Uzbekistan alongside the host country.

Arumainayagam, an Indian football legend, who was part of the 1962 Asian Games Gold winning team, was appointed the coach as the squad – made of mostly Under-23 footballers – prepared for a month at a coaching camp in Kerala.

They faced Uzbekistan in the opening fixture and lost 2-0 with the only memorable move coming in the third minute of the match, when Pushpa Das’s shot sailed over the bar after Chaoba Devi had hit the cross-bar.

Das made amends in the first minute of the team’s next encounter against Hungary, when she used the lack of co-ordination in the opponent defence to earn her team the lead. The joy, though, was short-lived as the mighty European side hammered them 8-1 in the tie.

In the last match against Chile, Chaoba converted a penalty-kick, but the Latin American nation ran away winners 2-1. Even though the side lost all its matches in the tournament, a number of the team members stressed that it was a major learning experience for the unit.

A creditable show

“This was the first time we got to play such big names and the credit goes to her (Jayalalithaa). We were a very young team with no exposure to world football till then and that tournament worked as an eye-opener,” Pushpa, who had scored the first goal for India in the Gold Cup told Scroll on Tuesday.

She added, “The foreign coaches were so impressed with our performance. The Ghana manager told us that given the right infrastructure, we had the potential to challenge the big forces. But that was not to happen.”

The coach of the side now suffers from dementia and failed to recall any memories from that particular tournament. “My memory betrays me these days. I am unable to remember anything from 1994,” Arumainayagam told Scroll in an apologetic tone over telephone.

Mario Rebello, another young member of the squad who enjoyed significant media coverage a couple of years ago for becoming the first woman referee to officiate a match in the I-League, was also grateful to Amma.

“It was a very well organized tournament and for the first time, we were put up in a five-star hotel. We were all very eager to meet her but she was too busy to attend the matches. Our group went on to form the core of the side that took part in 1995 AFC Women’s Championship in 1995.”

Rebello, Das, Chaoba and Chaitali Kar all went on to become doyens of Indian football in the next few years. The media reports also talked about the significance of the platform that the Gold Cup had provided and how the team improved their performance as the tournament went on.

“India paid dearly for their lack of experience and poor marksmanship,” the Times of India noted. “India came up with their best show in the tournament against Chile but it came a little late,” wrote KV Vasudevan, writing for The Indian Express.

However, that great endeavour by the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister ended up being the only edition of the Gold Cup. Her biggest political rival, Karunanidhi dragged a bank to the court for alleged misuse of funds during the contest.

Believe it or not, that remains the only international women’s football tournament ever held in this country and the only international competition where the women’s team has taken part till date, leaving aside the Asian Cup and the SAFF Cup where participation is mandatory.

“That remains one of the most important chapters of women’s football history simply because nothing similar has taken place till date,” Rebello quipped. While the AIFF played along during the inaugural version, their nonchalance to arrange for similar involvements in the last two decades is appalling.

Amongst all the pandemonium, it is pretty obvious that the little contribution of Jayalalithaa has by now become a forgotten chapter of Indian football history.

Atanu Mitra has been covering Indian football for more than four years. He tweets @Atanu00.