The millions of Indian football fans glued to the FIFA World Cup 2014 in Brazil are either cheering largely for the hosts, or Argentina or Germany or Holland—its `fandom of convenience` one could say. They simply pick the strongest horse in the race, and sport their team colours and cheer their goals and grieve in their losses. That is because India hasn`t qualified for it.
But imagine the joy if the Indian team had qualified! The excitement for the Indian football fans would multiply manifolds, wouldn`t it? We last qualified for the World Cup in 1950, and never since. Today it is a far-off dream as the men`s team is ranked 154th in the world out of 200-odd teams. But what if one told you that we do have a chance of qualifying for the next world cup —and that the Indian women could make it before the men?
In the FIFA rankings the Indian women are ranked 50th out of 125 nations and they currently are rated eleventh in Asia. They are the current holders of the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) women`s cup. In its last edition in 2012, India beat Nepal 3-1 at the CR&FC Grounds in Colombo. And they are currently training to face-off against the best Asian teams at the upcoming Incheon Asian Games. But should the nation have high hopes from a sport and a contingent that it has highly neglected? To understand what plagues Indian women`s football today, Hemant Abhishek of Zeenews.com talked to the goalkeeper of the Indian women`s team — Delhi lass Aditi Chauhan.
The interview provides a peek into how the grossly neglected game still finds takers and how girls defy stereotypes to excel at the game.
Q: For the uninitiated reader, tell us how did you develop an interest for football and briefly narrate your journey to the national team.
Aditi: I have been interested in sports since childhood. I`ve played various sports like basketball, karate and taken part in athletics at zonal, inter-zonal and national level. I loved playing basketball during school days, so when there was an Under-19 football trial for the Delhi team, my basketball coach suggested me to take part as a goalkeeper since I had good height, and could jump and grip the ball well. I played my first nationals representing Delhi when I was in 9th grade. But in 10th I did not play a lot of sports as I was concentrating on my studies. But I never realised that I had developed a special interest and love for football.
In my 11th grade I was selected for the Under-19 Asian Football Championship (AFC) qualifiers trial camp and worked really hard to not only be a part of the final squad but become the first choice goalkeeper for my country. I have never looked back since.
Q: You have played at the zonal levels and studied at the Delhi University. At all these levels, how much interest does football evoke in girls in India? Are girls enthusiastic about it?
Aditi: I have been playing football professionally for the past 5 years and have seen a phenomenal rise in the number of girls playing football at school, college and club levels. During these years various tournaments have come up at the school level. This year, the Delhi Soccer Association organised an inter club tournament where 10 clubs participated, which is frankly, a great improvement. The competition among players has also increased which helped Delhi perform exceptionally well at the Senior Nationals Tournament, which was held in Assam where Delhi bagged third spot beating states like West Bengal, Sikkim, etc.
Q: When we compare with cricket (an unfair comparison I agree, but) is the lack of interest in football "as a sport" that prevents youngsters from taking up football; or do they see it as an unsure career option (with respect to cash-rich cricket)?
Aditi: Lack of interest in football is definitely not the case. India has one one of the highest viewership of European leagues in Asia. I agree that for women footballers it is a little difficult to take up the sport professionally as there is not a lot of money or career opportunities even after playing at the highest level.
There is no national league, which is a major drawback. Our male counterparts on the other hand will now have two leagues soon—the I-league and the ISL. So, yes, it is still difficult for girls to take up football professionally as compared to boys. But the AIFF recently announced that we might have a league starting next year, let`s see how that pans out.
Q: Youth`s career choice in India still depends a lot on their parents. How much would you attribute the lack of exposure and enthusiasm for football in India to the fact that parents don`t see a future for their wards (especially girls) in the game and dissuade them? Other than providing job quotas to women footballers, in what other ways can government help women`s football?
Aditi: Most of the girls who are part of the India camp come from weaker economical backgrounds from states like Manipur, Orissa, Jharkhand, etc. These girls are not very educated and the only employment opportunity available for women footballers is in Railways or in state police departments.
I think more employment opportunities should be provided to girls in different sectors. I feel it is really important for these girls to be provided jobs as most of them take sports just to get employment and earn money to support their families. And this is how the parents will also be convinced and be motivated enough to send their children to play football. This will not only increase participation but will also help improve quality of football as there will be rise in competition and each player would want to prove that she is better than others. As a result, the standard of football will improve.
Q: You have risen from the ranks and represented the country — which means you had to go through the rigmarole that every budding or aspiring footballer faces in India. After choosing football over basketball, was there ever a time when you wanted to give up? How has the journey been so far?
Aditi: I chose to play football over basketball because of the love and joy I felt from playing the sport. There was a different connection with football. Initially it was a little difficult to convince my father that I wanted to play football professionally as he didn`t see any future in it and was worried as football is a very physical sport. He being a tennis player himself, wanted me to play an individual sport but my grandmother supported me and she even used to accompany me to the practices during Delhi camps. But later when I was selected to play for the country my father accepted it and is happy now. The journey has been full of hard work, and I have never taken my place in the team for granted. I train throughout the year to keep myself fit, recover from injuries and to constantly improve my performance.
Q: You were a vital part of the team that emerged victorious in the SAFF games 2012, and now the Incheon Asian Games beckon and you`re headed to Mumbai conditioning camp. How good are our chances? Which are the teams to beat?
Aditi: We are currently ranked 11th in Asia and we have a mix of players – both young and experienced. We will also be playing friendly matches in China before going for the Asian Games. But the fixtures have not come out yet so we do not know which teams we will be competing against in our pool. But I feel we should put up a good performance in Incheon and further improve our ranking.
Q: The men`s team is ranked 154th while the women are ranked 50th. Youngsters who are glued to the FIFA World Cup do have a certain melancholy when they speak of Indian football and most of them would want to see India shine on the world stage.
Would you stick your neck out and say that Indian women`s team has in it to make it to the WC before men?
Aditi: I definitely feel that the women`s team has much brighter chance of qualifying for the Word Cup before the men`s team. But that will be possible only if the AIFF makes sincere efforts to provide better facilities, exposure tours and invest in grass-roots and academies for girls like they are doing for boys. But if the National league for girls is launched next year like they have announced, then it will be a major step forward.