If you had to ever pick out one individual moment that particularly stood out in Indian football this year, the screamer from Dalima Chhibber’s right boot during India’s SAFF Women’s Championship triumph against Nepal should be pretty high up in most books.

She stood six steps behind the ball to take the free kick and caught the ball so well that it swerved right into the top-left hand corner leaving the Nepal goalkeeper astounded.

It was a free-kick that had oomph and a touch of brilliance - one that drew comparisons to that famous strike scored by Ronaldinho against England during the 2002 Fifa World Cup. Chhibber, voted as the most valuable player of the tournament remembers that her phone wouldn’t stop buzzing.

“The number of people who shared it and retweeted it was crazy,” she told Scroll.in.

“I was really shocked by the response because it was women’s football and people weren’t really interested in it back then. Ever since I have started playing, I never witnessed such kind of interest. I was stunned, happy, overwhelmed and proud - all mixed feelings at one point,” she recalls.

Chhibber, now a first-choice right back who has come through the ranks has seen the national squad evolve tremendously ever since donning India’s colours in 2016. The 21-year-old defender played a massive part in the team’s run to the second round of the Olympic qualifiers, where they bowed out on inferior goal difference after going toe-to-toe against Myanmar, ranked 19 places higher.

The Maymol Rocky-led side stood on the cusp of history and even led twice in the match against their technically-superior opponents but it wasn’t meant to be. It was perhaps a culmination of a promising four months for women’s football that started in December 2018, where Rocky once stated it was difficult getting the team together.

India played a total of 18 games - the most ever in such a short span - that included eight victories, three losses and two draws across four competitions. The ride was bumpy at the start but an optimistic Turkish Cup campaign sowed the seeds of success. They embarked on a six-match winning spree which meant that they retained the SAFF Cup for the fifth time.

“The journey was difficult but we enjoyed it. As women’s footballers in India, this is what we have always been looking forward to. The last four months were the most exposure we have got in our history. The growth was immense and the recognition that we have received is a lot.

“Especially in Turkey because we played against European sides like Romania and Tajikistan. Playing against such teams helps you grow because the kind of football culture in European and other countries is way different from what we witness in South Asia. That helped us compete against higher-ranked teams like Myanmar,” she said.

Even more commendable is how Rocky has backed youngsters such as Chhibber and many others to the hilt. The squad that competed in the Olympic qualifiers had an average age of 21.4 years.

“The team has evolved in a lot of aspects. There is more young blood now and everyone is fitter. We all are keen on doing the best we can.

Our immediate goal in the next five years is to establish ourselves as a dominant force in Asia as one of the top five countries. If this batch receives the same kind of exposure as the men’s team does, that will help us grow immensely,” she asserts.

Chibber, who is currently playing her third season in the ongoing Indian Women’s League called for a more longer and sustainable tournament although she feels it needs time.

“Having a longer league would be beneficial but right now doing that in India wouldn’t be possible given most of our players work side-by-side. They cannot be released from their jobs for a longer period of time and considering there is not much money in women’s football.

“It requires stakeholders to invest their money, organise everything and bring the sport up. It will take time to grow but a longer league would be much more beneficial in terms of getting women’s football up,” she suggested.

The Gokulam Kerala defender believes a unified league consisting of Indian Super League and I-League sides would help spur the growth further.

“I really want ISL and I-league clubs to put forward their women’s teams because that would in turn help women’s football much more. The two leagues have a greater impact on the audience, so a unified league could be a solution,” she added.

‘Women’s U-17 World Cup a ray of hope’

Indian women’s football doesn’t have a defined structure - not only for budding players but also for ones in the national squad - who still rely on their jobs for financial security.

With lacks of funds, sponsorships, infrastructure and undefined roadmap; the talk around India hosting the Fifa U-17 Women’s World Cup 2020 hasn’t ignited any huge excitement. However, Chhibber sees the tournament as a catalyst for change.

“I definitely see the U-17 World Cup changing women’s football. As we received a lot of exposure, a tournament of this magnitude will present a lot of experience to our girls. It is also a good platform for the youngsters to come up and see a ray of hope in a country like India where ‘Yes, we can dream of playing the World Cup one day.’

“Many people are still not ready to believe that women can make a career in football. The U-17 World Cup will help us see things in totality. Parents will now know that women do play football and that there is a national team and you can make a career out of it. They will get to see the love and craziness surrounding the game, considering women’s football does not hold a long history in a country like India and that the interest is also very intricate.

“It will also help the youngsters come up. So that way we will have a lot of developed and growing players because they will have enough exposure after facing teams like France,” she adds.

Changing perceptions

Chhibber, who grew up in Delhi playing alongside boys, was inspired by her father, who was an athlete himself, to take up the sport. But she hasn’t easily forgotten the times she was discouraged too.

“Back then in school and people around me used to say that there was no future in football, there’s nothing that you can do. I started with athletics, so there was a time my father used to tell there is scope since it was an individual sport and that you can aim for the Olympics. But I always heard about how fewer women played football and that I would not be able to play at a high level,” she recalled.

She now serves as an inspiration for many girls, a massive change from the times when she looked down upon by her naysayers.

“I am happy that I was able to overcome all of that and it is the reason why I am working so hard because I want to bring about that change. After I scored that goal, the perception changed a lot.

“The same people who used to tell me that you won’t go far are the same people saying today, ‘You go ahead, do the best that you can and try getting India to the World Cup.’ I have seen the interest grow and now there are a lot of parents who walk up to me, who walk up to Aditi [Chauhan] and other players about how they want their daughters to play like us,” she added.