Rewind back to 22nd March, 2019. India had just clinched their fifth SAFF Women’s Championship after thumping Nepal 3-1 and at the centre of it was young Dalima Chhibber. She couldn’t have been more proud of herself at that moment. After all, she had capped off the tournament in a befitting fashion.
Chhibber bagged the Most Valuable Player Award that included an audacious belter in the final, that sent millions back home in a frenzy.
Celebrations were done and while her social media was usually flooded with congratulatory messages that evening, Chhibber still managed to notice a couple of comments that were not in good taste.
“I don’t exactly remember what was written but it was a post by the Indian football team handle that had a picture of me and Indumathi [Kathiresen]. She won the highest goalscorer award and I received another award,” Chhibber told Scroll.in.
“I read a few comments that said, ‘What will they do when they come back? They will just return home and manage the household chores...
“Another guy commented, go back and start cooking food for your family and stuff like that,” she recalled.
Although the 21-year-old remained unfazed by those remarks back then, that wasn’t the first occasion that she has faced sexism ever since she started pursuing football.
“It has been a difficult ride. I have faced a lot of sexists remarks directed towards me and especially in a place like Delhi where education is given more emphasis than sports. Coming from a state like India where people are not even aware of football it is still difficult and such sexist remarks do come in,” she admits.
Massive pay disparity
Sexism is one of the longstanding issues faced by women in society and it runs deep in Indian football too. The notion that the women’s game is far inferior and a secondary version compared to what men play continues to exist.
On the back of it, is the huge gender pay disparity that is now coming to the fore globally.
The winners of the ongoing Fifa Women’s World Cup will receive a cash prize of $4 million. And although the cash prize is double from the previous edition that took place in 2015, France was awarded a total of $38 million for winning the 2018 men’s World Cup, almost ten times as much.
Prize money allocation by Fifa
|2018 Fifa men's World Cup||2019 Fifa women's World Cup|
|Champion||$38 million||$4 million|
|Runner-up||$28 million||$2.6 million|
|3rd||$24 million||$2 million|
|4th||$22 million ($16 million per team)||$1.6 million|
|5th-8th||$64 million ($16 million per team)||$5.8 million ($1.45 million per team)|
|9th-16th||$96 million ($12 million per team)||$8 million ($1 million per team)|
|17th-24th||$64 million ($8 million per team)||$6 million ($0.75 million per team)|
|25th-32nd||$64 million ($8 million per team)||-|
|Total||$400 million||$30 million|
That’s one of the reasons why current Ballon d’Or holder and Norwegian Ada Hegerberg is not featuring for her country at the Women’s World Cup, her last national team appearance coming back in 2017.
She cited the discriminatory treatment of the women’s team by the Norwegian football federation as a reason for her departure. Earlier in March, the US women’s team had also taken legal action against their own federation over unequal pay, despite racking up more accolades than the men.
Countries like Norway and New Zealand have now put forward new agreements in place where men and women are receiving the same pay for representing their country.
The scenario is completely different in India where women footballers still rely on part-time jobs to earn a living. On national duty, all the women get paid by the All India Football Federation is a meager daily allowance sum of Rs 600 while men earn somewhere around 15-25 dollars for foreign tours and Rs 1000 for games at home.
“We can’t compare men and women’s football in India. We are at a stage where we are growing and trying to reach the level set by them [men]. It’s unfair to compare. But from what I feel, we are heading in the right direction,” said India captain Aditi Chauhan when asked if women footballers were underpaid.
For young guns like Chhibber, who burst onto the scene a couple of years ago, equal pay still remains a far-fetched goal.
“I am actually happy that in some countries are getting equal pay as the men, but in India, I don’t see that happening or the gap getting lesser anytime soon. In those countries it only became possible because the players came up and stood together for such a matter but in India, it’s still a far fetched goal,” Chhibber added.
Although the growth of the Indian women’s team has been remarkable, their success does not reflect in the pay purse. Yes, there have been positive signs and good initiatives in the past few years taken by the AIFF, but women are still in two minds on whether they should take up the sport.
“I did have doubts to even consider playing football and continue it. Because financially I still really can’t depend on it. Making a career is different and financially being independent and being able to sustain yourself are two different things. I don’t see that happening in women’s football in India. Because in the end, it comes down to looking for jobs where we could actually earn and sustain ourselves for a long period,” Chhibber explained.
The Indian Women’s League is one such initiative that has been put forward to develop the sport but the duration of the tournament doesn’t last longer than a few weeks.
Average annual salary in women's club football
|League||Average salary per player|
|Ligue 1 Feminin (France)||$49,782|
|National Women's Soccer League (US)||$35,355|
|FA Women's National League (England)||$27,054|
|Liga MX Femenil (Mexico)||$9,723|
The number of participating teams have increased since its inception in 2016 but investors are not willing to spend money in the league as it is inactive for the rest of the year unlike the Indian Super League and the I-League where men’s footballers earn easily in lakhs and crores. Chauhan feels extending the IWL for a longer period could be the solution.
“The IWL is probably not the best and currently not the answer to every problem. But I feel that could answer a lot of questions about things like financial stability. Maybe if it becomes a little longer and goes around the year, it will provide a lot of financial security to the players as well,” she opined.
It’s not only about pay but the lack of exposure trips, sponsorship and poor facilities that have hampered the growth of women’s football in the past.
Building on the positives
Throughout 2017 and 2018, the Indian women’s team played a total of 15 games that included just two friendlies.
So far in 2019, they have played a total of 18 games – the most they have ever played in a year. That’s a massive development from almost a decade ago where they were dropped out of the Fifa rankings after being inactive for more than three years during 2007-10.
Currently, they are ranked 13 in Asia and 63 in the world – 38 spots above the men, placed at 101. The signs was evident in their promising run of the 2020 AFC Olympic qualifiers, where they lost by a whisker in the second round.
“I remember there were years when the whole year would go by and we would just wait for an international match. But this year, we have played so many games. Those are the positives I would look into more and appreciate the work that has been done,” said Chauhan.
Chibber adds that better facilities and international matches are always a motivation to perform better.
“It was only now that we were provided with such a long trip, more time together and more preparation for the tournaments that were coming up. The team stayed together for so long, hopped from countries to countries for tournaments and we did produce results. I hope that continuity is there.
“If that gap is bridged and there is equity that comes in, considering men and women’s football, it will surely help us establish ourselves as a powerhouse in Asian football. If that gap is lessened it can produce massive results because at the end it comes down to having that little motivation to continue playing football in a country like India,” Chibber believes.
Goalkeeper Chauhan runs her own football academy in New Delhi going by the name of SheKicks FA, an attempt to give back to the sport that has made her what she is today.
Perceptions may have changed over time but more often than not, women footballers don’t receive the recognition they deserve.
“From my experience, there is still a lack of awareness at the ground level for parents. That is something that we at SheKicks try to address and spread the awareness to different schools that we go and work in.
“When I started playing football, I did not even know that a national women’s football team existed. The perception is changing and yes, people are recognising and valuing women’s football. But you cannot take things for granted. We put in a lot of effort behind the scenes to get to this level, to be appreciated and get recognised,” Chauhan added.
If you are a women’s footballer in India trying to make a name for yourself, the journey may be arduous and long but only your relentless passion and love for the game is the only thing that will keep you hooked on to it.
“I don’t think it easy for girls to make it big on their own. It is not easy to walk out of those boundaries alone and be independent and sustain yourself financially on the sport that you want to play,” said Chhibber.
“But all they need is a little bit of motivation and encouragement. And when nobody stands up for them, they need someone who does,” she further added. “If the girls are really serious and are given the support they need, they will produce the results. I would tell them to not lose hope and look for a way out because there is a solution to every problem.”
Chauhan, who had earlier become the first Indian women’s footballer to sign up for professional football club after a deal with West Ham United, encourages girls to keep following their dreams regardless of all the odds.
“When I started out, I did not know what the future would be like and what level I’d be able to achieve. But it was just pure love for the game that kept me grounded and made me work harder. That’s what happened in my case. There are more opportunities now and definitely a lot of possibilities in doing what you want to do.
“Because when you’re really passionate and really in love with something you find a way someway or the other to make your dreams come true.”