Rashmita Patra had lifted the Women's National Football Championship with Odisha in 2012 at the age of 21. Only a year prior to that, she had made her debut for the Indian women's national team. The young defender had a promising career ahead of her. Yet, barely two years after winning the national title with her home state, poverty forced her to give up her career in the sport, and start a small betel shop in the streets of Aul, Odisha. Her story made some rounds on social media last summer, after a national daily did a brief feature on her. Unsurprisingly, however, Rashmita was quickly forgotten; her career in football never resumed again.
Patra is not a one-off case. Women's football in India is an unforgiving industry; the sport does not provide lucrative career opportunities to the players, and it is usually seen as a means of obtaining a more stable government job. The fact that quite a few of the players in the current women's national team earn their bread from professions other than football, is a testament to the financial barrenness of the sport. Juhi Shah has been in the domestic football industry for a few years now, having both played and officiated games at different levels. She explains why making a living through professional football is easier said than done for most female athletes. "You don't have an I-League or and ISL to look forward to, and playing in provincial tournaments won't earn you much money. Many female footballers have to look into the field of coaching or try their luck in government jobs, both of which provide some financial stability," she says.
As is quite visible, the biggest problem with the women's game in India today is the absence of a professional structure. Football being a career cul-de-sac for the athletes is only a by-product of the same. Till date, the country has failed to deliver its female footballers a national league. In the provincial and sub-provincial tournaments, the arrangements are amateurish at best. The Women's National Football Championship, which is the most important tournament in the domestic women's football circuit in India, has been plagued by administrative disinterest over the years. The fact that AIFF couldn't be bothered to hold the tournament between 2011 and 2014, is an indication of the governing body's level of concern for the women's game. This season's U14 National Championship and the Senior Women's National Football Championship were scheduled to be held in December and January, respectively, but there has been no news on either front so far.
As part of AIFF's 2014-17 Strategic Plan, the governing body plans to start a women's league this year. However, there is very little clarity on how the governing body will achieve the same in a matter of a few months. We are into the third month of the year, and there isn't even a blueprint in place for a national-level league. "Organizing a women's league will require requires funds, sponsors, time and effort from the administrators. While a league is supposed to start from this year itself, no strategy seems to have been developed to lay down the course of action for the same. With AIFF already having to accommodate quite a few tournaments for the men and a few age-group competitions for both genders in its annual calendar, starting a women's league doesn't seem to be part of AIFF's plan this year," explains Juhi Shah. To back up Shah's statement, more compelling evidence of AIFF's lack of seriousness towards the planned women's league can be found in its own budget for the Strategic Plan, which it recently published. While close to Rs. 30 crores have been allotted towards the men's national team for the period, and almost Rs. 57 crores towards the I-League (which is still a meager amount considering the scale of the tournament), a total of Rs. 15.37 crores will be spent on the women's national team; but shockingly, not a single rupee has been allotted to a women's league, which, as per AIFF General Secretary Kushal Das, the governing body plans to start in mid-2015. In contrast, expenses related to the management of AIFF will be close to Rs. 58 crores during this period.
It is fair to say that the governing body is running short of ideas when it comes to women's football. Its priorities look very much skewed. However, Shah feels the state associations have to take their fair share of blame for the current state of affairs as well. "State associations should play a very active role in developing women's football, and not many have put in much effort so far, which has also adversely impacted AIFF's efforts. There are a few provincial bodies like WIFA which are trying their best to change things, but that isn't the case in all the states, which is why it is not entirely fair to single out AIFF for the current situation. That being said, AIFF hasn't spent enough money on the women's game over the years. The national team hasn't played an international friendly in the last couple of years, and they prepared for the Asian Games by playing three games against local outfits, which isn't a very positive reflection of the governing body's efforts. They have to bring in more funds for women's football, and spend the same judiciously," she elaborates. The young Mumbai-based referee makes a very valid point about the state bodies, but this raises another important question: how does AIFF monitor the activities of the provincial bodies, most of whom have contributed very little towards women's football so far? The answer to this question is a bit disheartening, but not entirely shocking. An Uttarakhand-based football enthusiast had filed an RTI in 2013 raising the same question to AIFF. After being taken to the courts for failing to reply, the apex body finally answered the applicant earlier this year: it had no mechanism in place, none whatsoever, to monitor the activities of the state bodies.
In a situation where the blind is leading the blind, women's football in the country is nowhere near to getting its own professional setup. However, there have been some positive developments over the last few months. Recently, Pune FC, who have often raised the bar for professionalism in Indian football, became the second I-League club to invest in women's football. After selecting a group of players through trials, the club now has its own women's outfit. A few months back, Shillong-based Royal Wahingdoh started its own women's football initiative as part of its youth development programme, providing training to girls aged 12 to 16, a commendable effort for a club with moderate resources. These initiatives point to a willingness among the country's established football institutions to get involved in the women's game. Moreover, NGOs like Yuwa continue their efforts to empower girls in the remoter parts of the country, through the beautiful game, and will surely have an important role to play in future. If there is any hope, it lies in these individual stakeholders. Today, Manipur and Odisha continue to produce most of the country's top professionals, with the former being home of some of the all-time greats like Bembem Devi. The country lies 53rd in the international rankings despite having professional players from these small pockets of the country. If the AIFF and its state affiliates roll up their sleeves and get to work, the possibilities for the women's game are immense.
This blog first appeared on The Hard Tackle, and can be read here