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"Gender and sport in India: aspects of women's football"Arunava Choudhari.

Updated: Sep 18, 2020

The FIFA Women's World Cup was brought to life on the initiative of Dr. João Havelange, then President of FIFA. The first competition was played in the People's Republic of China in November of 1991 and proved to be a resounding success. The championship has enabled FIFA to give women access to world-class soccer competitions.

The expectations that FIFA placed on women's soccer have certainly been fulfilled. Only a short while ago, a project which would have been perceived as idealistic has now materialized in the most auspicious way, with the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup expected to be the largest women's world championship in history.


The 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup in the United States showed that there is lots of potential in women's football. Over the last decade, women?s football has been on the rise all over the world, with the support of the international football governing body FIFA and the national federations.

The final of the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup between the United States and China was watched by 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl stadium in Los Angeles, the largest attendance ever for a women?s football match worldwide! All over the United States the tournament, for most matches, had large crowds in the stadia, with people celebrating parties in the stadia before, during and after the matches. The Women's World Cup showed that football can be an event, which can take place in a positive atmosphere with no trouble or violence involved.

India was one of nearly 75 nations that tried to qualify for the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup tournament but unfortunately they failed. At the 1997 Asian Women's Championships in China, which like other Confederation championships was the Asian qualifier, India would have needed to make a third place finishing to qualify but India was unlucky, as they failed to qualify for the semi-finals from their group, due to an inferior goal difference which destroyed their chances. India finished with a respectable fifth place. With the qualification to the Women's World Cup, the women's game in India would have received a major boast in their efforts to make the sport popular with women across India. The matches against the top women teams of the world would have also highlighted the weaknesses of the Indian women's game.

Women's football has become very popular especially in the United States of America, with stars like Mia Hamm earning huge sums of money from sponsorship contacts, like her male counterparts. Mia Hamm even did a TV commercial with American basketball sports legend Michael Jordan, highlighting her image, being a role model for young girls in the United States. But that is a positive exception in international women's football. It is different for another superstar of the women's game, Chinese striker Sun Wen. Sun Wen has been honoured by the Asian Football Confederation as Asian "Women's Player of the Year" but her status is not that of Mia Hamm's, though their qualities as players are similar.

In the United States football is more popularly played among young girls than among boys, who have the problem of choosing from a lot of professional sports. Even among the seniors, women's football is more popular than the men's game, getting more attention from the media. The men's and women's league in the US will be working together in the future to promote football all over the United States.

Another country where women's football has been and is still more successful than the men's game is China, though the men's game is much more popular there. Besides the USA, China is one of the best teams in the world but the women's game has its problems. While the Chinese women have qualified for each of the three Women's World Cups, their male counterparts have never done so. The men's game in China is strongly supported financially by the industry, while the women's game has problems finding sponsors for the Chinese women's league.

Another country which has had considerable success in women's football is Germany, which has won the European Women's Championships a number of times. In the last few years women?s football in Germany has been working on becoming more and more professional. The Germans women's league, the Bundesliga, has undergone changes for better competition among the teams. Until a few years ago, the Bundesliga was divided into a north and south division, with 10 teams in both leagues, making a total of 20 teams in top division. That was changed three years ago, with only one top division having 12 teams competing against each other. Under the old format, the top teams only used to play against each other in the championships playoffs, which was not good for competition. Clubs like the German cup champions FFC Frankfurt have even broken away from their parent club and renamed themselves to increase their chances of finding sponsorship. The club used to be called SG Praunheim but now they call themselves FFC Frankfurt, with FFC meaning "women's football club". FFC Frankfurt were the first and others have already followed. The club is also a role model for other clubs in professional management in Germany. Meanwhile some of Germany's top men's clubs have realised the chances in women's football. Bayern Munich and Hamburger SV tried to gain promotion to the Bundesliga, winning their regional "Regionalliga" without losing a single match. While Bayern Munich gained promotion in the playoffs, Hamburger SV failed.

Bayern Munich's proper involvement in women's football came after Bayern Munich president, living German football legend, Franz Beckenbauer, had given the German women's national team coach Tina Theune-Meyer his word that Bayern would help in bringing up talented young women players and give women national team players a chance to play in professional surroundings.

The following section will examine in depth the question whether women's football is also on the rise in India or not:

Women's Football in INDIA

Like in the men's game, India was a front-runner in the women's game in Asia when it started.

Initially football was brought to India in the 1880s by the British colonial rulers but at first football was primarily played by the British stationed in India, mainly army teams playing against each other. But Indians soon took to the game and it started to change slowly over the decades. In 1911 when Mohun Bagan won the IFA-Shield trophy in Calcutta, it was a historic win for Indian football. It took another two to three decades for Indian football to make its breakthrough, becoming the most popular sport in India. But over the last two decades football?s popularity has dropped considerably. Just this year wit the good show of the Indian national team interest in the game seems to come back.

The women's game took another couple of decades to take off at all in India.

The beginnings of women's football in India can be traced back to until the early 1970s though the game is yet to take firm root throughout the Indian sub-continent. The national team has done reasonably well on a number of occasions in the Asian Women's circuit, finishing runners-up in the Asian Women's Championships in 1979 and 1985. In 1979 India was the host of the third Asian Women?s Championships, which was held in the southern Indian port city of Calicut. Six teams, Australia, Hong Kong, Mulan Taipei, Malaysia and two teams from the hosts India participated in the championships. The Championship was won by Mulan Taipei with India A finishing as runners-up.

The first Senior National Championship for Women was held in 1975 in the Uttar Pradesh capital of Lucknow.

Class prevailed over exuberance. This aptly summed up Manipur's golden goal victory over Bengal in the seventh senior National women's football championship final at the Polo ground here on Saturday. The hard-fought win was Manipur's fifth in seven years.

There was not an iota of doubt as to which team was the best in the summit class. Endowed with natural built, the Manipuri girls exhibited exemplary skill, speed and stamina, the three Ss very important in football, in abundance in their title triumph. What the Manipuri girls lacked was in tactical sense and bit of imagination.

Bengal knew it had a big battle in hand and it had only one option to win the clash by scoring in a counter attack. But Manipur saw through the game and it did not allow the Bengal forwards to cause any damage though the game went into extra-time after a goalless regulation 80 minutes.

(The Hindu, 23 May 1999)

Like in the men's game, Bengal's women were the initial leaders in the game but in the last decade, the women from Manipur have not only come up but have even overtaken the women from Bengal. Having won the last four National championship finals against Bengal, Manipur are now the undisputed champions and form the core group of the Indian women's national team, along with their Bengali rivals.

The simplest way to prove the dominance of the two teams from Manipur and Bengal is to go through the list of finals of the National championships. The final always reads: Manipur against Bengal; with Manipur winning in seven editions, while Bengal won the other two of the nine editions.

What makes the Manipur against Bengal final interesting is the different styles of play and tactics between the two best teams in India. The biggest strength of Manipur is their speed and its stamina, which enable them to last the entire match, while Bengal relies on individual flair and collective wisdom. The Manipuri tactic is ruthless, with the team attacking throughout the match, making high margin wins nothing special in a match involving Manipur. Meanwhile Bengal totally depends on their ability to surprise the opposition with their unpredictable nature of play. Bengal is also tactically better than Manipur, as they can play a wait and watch game if needed, often not winning by as high margins as Manipur.

The game progressed especially well in Manipur because women in the state have participated actively in every walk of life and football is the most popular game in the state, which lies in the north-east of India.

The North-East is probably the only region in India where cricket has taken a back seat, lacking far behind football. This shows that most of the north-eastern states do not even have a cricket team to play in the Ranji Trophy (Indian national cricket championships). Football is so popular in Manipur that most talented players currently coming-up in India, both women or men, come from the small north-eastern state. It shows that there is not only a passion among the people to watch football but also to play. This clearly distinguishes Manipuri women from women from other states all around India, where football is also popular but not much played by women.

The early exit of last year's semifinalists, Kerala and Orissa, was the shock of the tournament. Kerala, a semifinalist every year till now, failed to reach the knock-out stage for the first time. Kerala, apart from fielding at least five very senior players, who would do well to hang up their boots, also lost the services of Bentala D'Couth, who supervised matches including the final.

(The Sportstar, 24 June 2000)

Other states which also have football enthusiasts among women like their male counterparts are Goa, Kerala, Orissa and lately Punjab. But Kerala seems to have problems in finding talented youngsters for its state team. Manipur and Bengal, Goa, Kerala, Orissa and Punjab all have international players in their ranks but the over-dependence on the star players is a major problem for the teams.

Up to now football, like other sports in India is very job oriented. The job options for women footballers in India are extremely limited, as women footballers cannot make a living from football. So even today, except in a few places like Manipur, Goa, Bengal, Mumbai or Kerala, women's football has hardly any existence. The Government Undertaking Indian Railways are still the only agency, which enable women to have a job and play football. There are some others, like the government undertaking, the Income Tax Department and the Verona Company, which offer women money to play for them but that kind of offer does not necessarily guarantee them a job.

This situation is slowly changing at least in Calcutta, Bengal. Since the season 2000/01 onwards, two of India?s top football clubs, Mohun Bagan AC and East Bengal Club have joined the Calcutta Women?s Football League with their own women teams.

The final of the Calcutta Women?s Football League was held, as had been expected, between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan in front of 12.000 football supporters at the Rabindra Sarobar Stadium. East Bengal won 1–0 and the East Bengal fans cheered their women?s team the like their male counterparts!

The common sponsor of the two teams, the United Breweries Group, wants to bring in a touch of professionalism into the women's game, and make it popular in Calcutta and later on in other states as well.

The UB-Group commitment comes, as the company sees a lot of sponsorship possibilities in women's football in India, which would help them market their products and the entry of two of India top clubs will certainly help that goal.

Women's football had made some initial progress in the seventies but has little to talk about in terms of achievements after the Women's Football Federation of India was taken over by the All-India Football Federation in the early 1990s. The present AIFF president, Mr. Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, represents women's football in the federation but the game is always treated as the poor relation of the family. On a number of occasions, the WFFI even threatened to leave the AIFF due to a lack of proper support.

The Indian women?s team was criticised for conceding 36 goals in the 1998 Bangkok Asian Games, losing 0-7 to South Korea, 1-13 to Taiwan and a humiliating 0-16 against China but the team was neither given an exposure trip nor proper exposure nor proper exposure before the Asiad. As a practice match, the girls were made to play against the Bengal under-16 boys team at the SAI Eastern Centre in Calcutta, that was all.

On the other hand, after the women's team got an exposure trip to Germany in 1997, they played a successful Asian Women's Championships in China, winning by a record 10-0 against Guam, 3-0 against Hongkong and losing only 0-1 to Asian giants Japan. Due to a worse goal difference, the Indian women's team was unlucky to miss out on a semi-final spot and a chance to qualify for the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup, played in the United States. The trip was not made possible by the All-India Football Federation but due to the hard work and help put forward by some Non-Resident Indians in Germany. The group of NRIs from the Stuttgart-Heilbronn area provided the women with training facilities which they had never enjoyed before, due to contacts with local clubs and the German football federation, DFB. During their trip to Germany, the women were taken very well care of by the German federation, something they sadly do not get from their own federation.

But this was not the only attempt by the German NRIs to help Indian women?s football. In February 2000 Sujata Kar , a striker, and Alpana Sil, a midfielder, came to Germany as the first Indian women players to sign a contract as women footballers outside India. The two Bengal players signed a three-month trial contract in Europe with German Oberliga Baden-Wuerttemberg league club TSV Crailsheim, with prospects of long–terms contract had they not returned only after a month of their arrival having played only a test match due to problems with their "International Transfer Clearance".

Favourites called the tune and the pretenders kept dancing till the end. The holder Manipur and last year's runner- up Bengal began their tune up to the summit clash on May 29 with run away victories in the opening quarterfinal group league matches of the 8th senior National Women's football Championship at the Karbi Anglong Sports Association ground here on Saturday.

Manipur, playing in its typical all-out attacking game, pumped in 10-0 against last year's semifinalist Kerala in a group E clash. Bengal scored only five goals without reply against Orissa as it preferred to take things easy in the second half of the group F tie. The highlight of the day was a hat-trick by Bengal and India striker Sujata Kar.

(The Hindu, 21 May 2000)

In the last few years the national championship for women has become a joke. Except for the finals involving Manipur and Bengal. Even the teams behind the big two, like Goa, Kerala, Assam and Maharashtra get beaten by huge margins by the top two. The problem is that most teams are too weak to compete with the top teams but even among the weaker teams there is a huge gap, so that weak teams beat even weaker teams, also by huge margins.

In the opener of the 2000 national championships in Diphu, Assam, the hosts Assam beat Rajasthan 26-0, equalling the 14-year record of Madhya Pradesh beating Gujarat. In the semi-finals Assam themselves one of the most improved teams in the 2000 championships, were trashed 12-0 by ruthless giants Manipur.

Another major problem is that the national championships for women are mostly hosted in remote places, where facilities are few and media coverage is near zero. Mainly local and state newspapers report about the championships; "The Hindu" is the only national newspaper to report on the championships.

NOT many would have come across Diphu, a small town in the verdant Karbi Anglong district in Assam. Inhabited by many tribes among which Karbis forms the majority, the district has an autonomous council established under the provisions of the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution.

The eighth senior National women's football championship was played here between May 14 and 29. A vibrant event with thousands of soccer lovers thronging the venue everyday.

(The Sportstar, 24 June 2000)

In 2001 for the first time the national championships were held in northern India, in the Punjabi town Ludhiana, which also is a big and accessible town. The three editions of the championships before that were held in Barasat, West Bengal; Shillong, Meghalaya and Diphu, Assam, places most Indians will not even have heard off. Though the matches are watched by big gatherings, the national championships should be held in of one India's numerous football centres, where they would get due media coverage and the game could present itself for potential sponsors.

It was ecstasy for the host Assam, as it made it to the semifinals of the senior National women's football championship for the first time in eight editions, and agony for last year's semifinalists Orissa and Kerala, as both were ousted on Tuesday at the Karbi Anglong Sports Association ground.

Assam richly deserved the place in the last four stage. The team had sweated it out for almost a month here for this tournament and the result of the hard work was there for everyone to see.

(The Hindu, 24 May 2000)

With proper training, working on physical education and passing on tactical knowledge of the game state teams and the national team could do much better. The talent is there but without proper guidance nothing will come of the efforts by all those talented young players. For teams like Manipur and Bengal only the final is often a tough match, while the other matches are a stroll along.

When the average age of football players is coming down the world over, Kerala's move to field at least five players above 30 years and a couple over 35 was buzzling. Maharashtra's fitter, faster and younger players ran around the Kerala stalwarts.

Coach T. Rajappan was even forced to field team's No. 1 goalkeeper Sunitha P. as a stopper. So much for the strength of the side.

It is surprising to note a sporting state like Kerala unable to unearth fresh talent in women's football.

(The Hindu, 24 May 2000)

During the women's nationals strange situations often arise for teams. It not only happens to the weaker teams but also to the stronger ones, which shows that in some states there are not many good enough footballers but it is more likely that the states do not search far enough for gifted players, so a number of talented youngsters have never made it because they were never discovered.

A couple of years ago in one of the Nationals, one team could not gather enough (that is eight) players to field a side. Finally their coach, walking on crutches because of a fracture, took the field. And to everyone's surprise, she stood under the bar! One can now easily understand the nature of seriousness involved with the nationals.

Most of the states bring teams with players, who actually play more than one sport. Inquiries will reveal that these girls play in many sports, like handball, basketball, volleyball, hockey or football for their respective government organisations. And since there is little competition, these girls even represent their states in more than just one sport. There are many women footballers, who are working in different government agencies, who have got their jobs because of some other sports they are good in. This does not make it possible for the women to concentrate on one sport, specialize in it and show their full potential.

ON May 28, the penultimate day of the eighth senior National women's football championship at Diphu, the third-place play-off game between Assam and Maharashtra was in progress when someone shouted from the stands that it was indeed a ladies' football game!

What was so special about this match? The 22 players from the two teams apart, there were three more on the field. They were referee Anamika Sen and two lineswomen, Chaitali Chatterjee and Shukla Nag (all three from Bengal). And the fourth referee was Binamai Balali of Assam.

Contrary to belief, this was not the first time that women officiated a match in the Nationals. Even that record was set at Diphu. For the first time an all-woman team of officials conducted a women's group league match, between Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh, on May 19. The four were Bentala D'Couth of Kerala (referee), Anamika Sen and Shukla Nag on the line with Binamai Balali at the table. Thus Bentala became the first woman to officiate a women's National match. All this in the Year of Women.

(The Sportstar, 24 June 2000)

Not only are women taking to playing football as players after their careers on the field they also serve the game in different capacities.

Former international Bentala D'Couth from Kerala has become a referee. D'Couth has already become one of India's best women's referees, after switching over from playing to officiating D'Couth aspires to be an international FIFA referee and is working hard towards it.

Other former women's internationals have become coaches. In the last few years Bengal has given the job of coach of the women's team to former women's players. In 1999 it was Kuntala Ghosh Dastidar, while at the 2000 Nationals it was India record international Shukla Dutta.

But what is the situation among the junior girls?

An example from the Super Soccer Academy, New Delhi by its Director of Coaching, Bill Adams:

The training situation at the Super Soccer Academy is the same for boys as it is for girls. When we first started, we had around 75 children and just over 10% were girls. They were mostly 9 and 10 years old but a few of them were 13, four girls to be precise. However now we have 25% girls. Two of my present batch of 9 year olds are among my best players. The four older girls still attend, but now they continue play with the 13/14 year olds since they cannot compete with boys in their age group physically. The pressure theses girls have had to endure to drop out has been intense, from parents, sports teacher and the boys. I am very proud of them! They have been a role model for the little ones who have joined after them. They will not be with me next season since they will be studying for exams, but they will be coming to the Soccer Adventure camp. At the present time 20% of the children are girls but they are all 12 or under. I have found that up to 13 girls often make far better footballers than boys. My two most tigerish tacklers are 9 year old girls.

We have played matches against School teams, and other Academies in the age groups from 8 to 16 in Delhi and we have always had girls in our teams. The other teams never play any girls, except for the German School but we always win by large margins.

But what might the future have in store for Indian Women's football?

If the AIFF takes the right decisions and steps for the women's game in India, the game might reach heights people aren't even thinking of now?

The potential is there to make an impact not only on the Asian football stage but even on the world stage. However a number of changes from the current situation would be needed to make India really proud of it the women's national team.

What is needed is that the AIFF administration appoints separate officers to take care of the women's game. Also the states should start scouting systems to find talented youngsters, enable the women to play competitive football throughout the year and sponsors to come forward to support the game and its players.

The AIFF should seek the help of professionals in the field of women's football. A project manager, who works out a plan for development over a 10 to 20 year period to bring Indian women's football up to international standard would be an ideal solution. But maybe to start off foreign coaches would be a good start.

What do other people think about the future of Indian women's football?

The views of Novy Kapadia, Sports Writer for the Telegraph (Calcutta) and Sportsweek, and Football Commentator for STAR Sports and ESPN.

Women's football in India has not got popular or widespread because there are no role models in the women's game and negligible media coverage. You have mentioned about inadequate print media coverage. However you should also highlight limited exposure on TV and Radio. I have been a football commentator in India since 1982 but have never done a women's football match. During the same period I must have done over three dozen women's hockey matches. I am also a hockey commentator also Doordarshan and All-India Radio. Also the Women's World Cup has never been shown on DD so for the women players, there are heroines to emulate such as in tennis where Graf, Kournikova, the William sisters, Martina Hingis and others become success stories you can relate to.

Negligible promotional efforts by the AIFF. There are also absence of jobs for women footballers, so talented sportswomen prefer other sports. In many states of India, like in my home state Delhi, the girls who play football are already established Handball, Basketball or Volleyball players or athletes. They take up this new game for minor benefits like track-suits, extra refreshment, travel and easy way to represent the State, which adds to your curriculum when you apply for a job. So except for the North-East, Bengal and Goa, very few women are playing football as their

first sport. Coaching at junior level is limited.

Exposure to international football and All-India domestic tournaments are limited. The AIFF has done little to help the women's game in India. The Indian squad before departure for the 1998 Asian games barely got any match practise and even struggled for train reservations and had to leave in batches.

Biographical note

Arunava Chaudhuri is the chief editor of

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