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TFM Editorials: Breaking Stereotypes: Womens Football in India

Dec 23, 2014 18:35

TFM Editorials, Breaking Stereotypes: Womens Football in India


Kailas Joshi - TFM Content Editor

Has the ISL really hit the right chord with audiences across India? Yes. Has it really achieved the miracle that its makers promised to achieve? Yes. Has it done something for Indian football? Yes. Has it done something for Indian women’s football? Er. Somewhat.

Let me say it straight: The state of Indian women’s football today is in shambles. For every avid Chelsea or Man U fan feverishly watching every match out there, there is a distinct line of difference between the two: Where one begins, the other ends.

The state of Indian men’s football, although not in the best of situations, is undergoing a major overhaul. The AIFF has initiated a separate league, the ISL, from the national league for men, the I-League. The opening day of the recently-concluded, franchise-based ISL alone reached around 74.4 million people. Men’s football also has its own problems, which the ISL tried to address. Just think of this as a magnified situation: If Indian men’s football fails to attract the attention of viewers, women’s football scores even lower, with no or minimal attention from the Indian crowd. If men’s football is struggling to organize its forces and deliver on the international stage, women’s football does not even get that opportunity at the national level (the national league was discontinued for three consecutive years, and was revived just this year, where Manipur beat Orissa. Also, the FIFA had, in a decision embarrassing for the AIFF, removed the Indian team from its international ranking in 2009, for not having played a single match for more than 18 months). If men’s football has the national I-League and the more “fun” ISL, (that’s two major leagues), women’s football constantly lives in danger of having its only national league culled from year to year. Not even an astrologer worth his salt can predict the immediate collapse of the women’s league, and that is saying something. You tell me, Do you even know one star footballer from the opposite sex? wait, let me guess. NO. If the men have basic or near-existent amenities available, the women’s team has non-existent amenities. No space to play, let alone turfs, no proper clothing, shoes, medicare or coaching. If the Indian fans of football know roughly what is happening in the national team and the ISL, they are equally unaware of the existence of the captain of the women’s team, Oinam Bembem Devi. I could continue this list all the way to the AIFF’s backyard in New Delhi.

The Indian national women’s football team, despite its meager status with fans and governing bodies alike, has in fact performed quite well if you consider its non-existent identity dilemma in India. The men’s team is currently ranked 171st (their lowest-ever)in the FIFA rankings, whereas the women’s team is an impressive 50th among 175 nations, and ranked 11th in Asia. They won the SAFF Championship in 2010 and 2012, having conceded an accumulative total of just one goal. They have managed to qualify in every Asian cup from 1995 to 2003, but have not done so since then. The South Asian Games gold was won by them in 2010. Having been dropped from FIFA rankings in 2009, and the AIFF finally taking external aid from the US women’s U-15 coach Mike Dickey, he expressed his surprise at how the Indian women’s team has been in the Asian top 15 despite getting minimal international exposure and playing a national league for about 20 days out of 365 in a year. This is an extremely positive sign for the future of the Indian team. They definitely show promise and exceptional talent, if only they were paid an iota of more attention.

The state of women’s football the world over has not been very good. In countries where football is a popular sport, among fans there is only a thirst for information about the men’s teams. The world cups of the men’s teams are more hyped than the women’s, and the most prominent leagues have only male participation. Such a perception about women’s football is disastrous in the long run. Some players, like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, find a comparison between men’s and women’s football “not funny”. He is quoted to have said “With all respect for the ladies, they should be rewarded in relation to what they generate” (financially). No one is comparing, but women’s teams do need the same, if not more, amount of publicity as men’s teams. Feats achieved by women’s teams or players are not given importance and ignored the world over. There is a bias and prejudice against women’s teams, right from organisation and management to recognition, appreciation and encouragement. Getting sponsors willing to invest in women’s football is a nightmare, because of which the sport fails to be trusted by potential sponsors. This phenomenon usually has no relation to the performance of the team on the field, because whether the team is a match-winning team or a down-in-the-doldrums team, there is no money involved in women’s football. Viewership of men’s football has always been higher, and so have their wages. FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke, has in fact stated that women should not expect to be paid as much as their male counterparts. He justifies this by reasoning that the women’s side of the sport is in its infancy, and has a long way to go before it attains the same cult status as men’s football. Thus, it is not right to think of women footballers having the same wages as the men. This is not an optimistic prediction for women around the world hoping to earn a living off their favourite sport. Though he is correct to a certain degree, there is no point in waiting for the flower to blossom when initiatives can be taken and there are talented women who may just give top clubs a run for their money. Women’s football in today’s age, with vigorous promotion and increased visibility, will quickly gain ground at a faster rate than what men’s football did over the years. Valcke also states that the difference in prize money for the world cups has much to do with sponsorship. The men’s world cup generates enough to fund the 20 odd world cups that the FIFA finances, with as much as 4.5 billion dollars that it generates. They cannot possibly ignore the men’s cup. But they could pump in more money and divert this to the advantage of women’s clubs in countries where there isn’t much awareness of the ladies’ sport at the grass root level. TV rights are begging to be sold, and broadcasters are ready to support women’s championships, but they do this on the condition that they come along with the men’s championship rights. At the risk of sounding strangely feminist, there is a need to separate the two and create a different identity for women’s football as a stand-alone factor that brings in revenue. Women’s football needs to be driven out of its dependency on men’s football, but it cannot exist without men’s football. You may have heard of the chicken and egg problem. I propose the Adam and Eve problem. You may dislike the very mention of the word feminism here, but there is an element of truth in this. Respect for women is much needed, according to Kushal Das, General Secretary for the AIFF. He states that “Developing Women’s Football means not only on the field but off it too. Social development, respect for Women are also issues that need to be dealt with… Unfortunately in India we don’t see a lot of respect for Women and that mindset needs to change for the sport to develop.” He recognizes a great need for gender upliftment before there is an attempt to bring in football. A slightly different approach set in reverse is followed by co-founder of YUWA, Franz Gastler, who aims to get women on the field, in order for them to realize their independence, and learn essential life-skills on the way. To him, football is a symbol of empowerment, as much as it is a means to a social end.

How can we achieve this independent status? Simply by introducing the same measures we have been trying to introduce into the men’s game in India. The success of the ISL has propagated the idea of a similar franchise-based tournament for women. The ISL succeeded in lending a bit of popularity to the dying state of Indian football. The same would apply to women’s events. Kushal Das, the general secretary of the AIFF, has confirmed that it is highly likely that another women’s national league can be started in 2015, provided the idea garners support from a majority of the clubs. 5 clubs have already expressed interest in the idea. An equal footing for both genders may be adopted if the influential in the world of football dedicate themselves to the cause. However, there seems to be a negative outlook with women’s football in the first place. A double-edged sword hangs above it, because in addition to the issues suffered by men’s football in India, there is the gender issue that needs to be addressed in the world of female football. It is mainly a self-financed territory, created as a result of politically-correct pressurizing rather than something that took birth of its own right to take birth. As a full-time job, it is an impossibility to both men and women. Institutional teams are not really promised jobs as well as they are in the male territory in India. Currently, the women’s game has not reached all parts of the country, and there is a disparity that runs amok through the nation. Women’s football strongholds are basically limited to Manipur, Bengal and Orissa. It is picking up fast in Goa, but the level of nation-wide competition is not as strong or as geographically consistent with men’s I-league or ISL teams.

Such are the similarities and gradient dissimilarities between a sport that is still played on the basis of gender in the contemporary age. How much can a dying sport yell before it is finally acknowledged as an equal at the center, rather than an entity at the periphery? Just think.

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