The Karnataka state women’s football team is in Arunachal Pradesh, hoping to win the women’s national football championship. As the competition enters its 25th year, the women’s game in India and Karnataka is at a turning point. More women are playing the game, and the official machinery is keen to support them.

Playing for Karnataka at the national championship is 15-year-old Tanya Gupta, who scored the winning goal in the Independence Day Cup in Bengaluru last month. That tournament was opened to women just this year, for the first time in its 63-year history.

Sacred Grounds

The Independence Day Cup tournament is one of the biggest football events in the city. Played at the East Grounds – the dirt fields by the Bangalore East Railway Station – it is an attraction for the city’s footballers.

“We used to call it the mini World Cup,” says Dharmendra Babu, a former professional footballer and a previous champion of the tournament, who is now approaching 50. Traditionally played barefoot and 7-a-side, the tournament let women’s teams keep their boots on, this time.

An empty dirt field, with faint chalk lines marking the boundaries. A big tree grows near one of the sidelines, and occasionally participates in the game when its branches catch a flying ball.

The seating around the stadium consists of just a few rows of concrete slabs covered overhead by aluminium panels sprouting from the compound wall around the field. Spectators who watch from the sides of the field become part of the action. The first row of concrete stands also marks the out-of-bounds line for that side of the field, no chalk needed.

Once the stands fill up, spectators fill the perimeter of the field shoulder-to-shoulder; others climb the compound wall around the field and perch atop their columns. Some others scramble up a staircase in the railway station that overlooks the field.

“In this tournament, the spectator is more like a player on the field,” Babu says.

The men’s knockout tournament has been going on since June, with 64 teams battling for a spot in the semi-final on Independence Day. The women’s tournament had just eight teams, with the quarter-finals held the Sunday before, on August 11.

On Independence Day, people trickled into the grounds for the first women’s semi-final in the morning. At that game, you could still see the outline of the dirt field, and empty seats in the stands. By afternoon, the field was packed.

An overwhelming victory

Rains delayed the women’s final of the Independence Day Cup. After waiting out the rains, the crowd slowly trickled back into the stands, and the lines were redrawn on the now-muddy field.

In under an hour, for the first time, a team of women would raise the Independence Day Cup. Young Stars FC – a conglomerate of young players from all over the city, formed in June – and a team from the Indian Football Factory, faced off in front of thousands of spectators.

The game was ultimately decided by Tanya Gupta, a 15-year-old who had played for Prakrima at Karnataka’s Super Division League in January. Gupta’s goal meant that Young Stars FC will go down in the books as the winners of the first Women’s Independence Day Cup.

Before the tournament, Gupta had never heard of the Independence Day Cup – the tournament’s ongoings are not advertised anywhere beyond those who already know about it. Her father told her he used to watch the games as a kid, but that’s about all she knew.

“We were so overwhelmed with everything,” Gupta said. “It was a once in a lifetime opportunity – we only realised the significance and importance of it after we won.”

Next year, the organisers hope to expand the tournament, with 16 teams for the women’s side.

“I saw parents coming and cheering for their daughters. That’s such a wonderful thing,” Babu said. “The spirits were very high, that’s something I never saw in my playing days,” he added.

From 1975 to 2019 - what changed in Indian women’s football?

A string of events suggests that women’s football in India is about to prosper in India.

The Indian Women’s League had its third season this year, and states are creating their own leagues to funnel teams into the IWL. The Indian national women’s team has a female coach for the first time, and there seems to be excitement for women’s football across the globe following the Women’s World Cup this summer.

Kuntala Ghosh Dastidar, 57, who was a member of the women’s national team back when it started, recalls what it was like. “When we started in ‘75, nobody thought we could play football. Even the doctor asked us to stop playing, saying it’d be a problem to be a mother,” Kuntala said.

Kuntala says she’d never thought she’d get the chance to represent her country in any capacity, and definitely not through football. Women who played on the national team were never paid; it was love and passion that fueled them.

Raksha Panwar, 24, who has played for India’s national youth teams and currently plays for Parikrma club, recalls how her family was supportive of her football aspirations when she was growing up. But many neighbours in her hometown didn’t feel the same way. “Every time she plays with the guys, she kicks the ball, she walks like a guy,” Raksha recalled her neighbours’ comments

But when other girls saw her play and win, they wanted to play football too. So Raksha invited them to train with her. “They played for some 20 days, and then their families said, ‘nothing will happen if you just play, go study, be at home’. And as you know about India that [the idea that] girls are only made for being in the kitchen and taking care of the family,” she said.

Ritika Srivatsan, a Super Division player of Karnataka, who is even younger at 17, explains that football was dominated by boys when she started off too. Her school didn’t have a girls’ football team; so she and a teammate from the club she played with, started one.

When Diya Vikram, who has played with Raksha for Parikrma, was in sixth grade, her school announced they would be starting a girls’ football team. “I remember when they announced it, everyone started laughing. At that moment I felt that I needed to prove something,” Diya recalled.

With India set to host the U-17 Fifa women’s World Cup next year, women’s football can hope for a shot in the arm.

(This article is from a series first published in Citizen Matters civic media website. (c) Oorvani Foundation/Open Media Initiative)