Women are still fighting for equal pay in 21st century, says India goalkeeper Aditi Chauhan

Tanuj Lakhina
India women's football team goalkeeper Aditi Chauhan sheds light on the fight for equal pay, how to bridge the gap with male counterparts and how a professional footballer copes with the pressure.

The USA women's football team were all over the news in the past month. Not only did they clinch their fourth World Cup - extending their record tally - but were also carrying the torch for women's football and equal pay. They have maintained that they receive lesser pay than their male counterparts despite achieving far more. The disparity in bonuses on offer tells the story: men would have earned a $38 million bonus if they won the 2018 World Cup. Women, however, received just $2 million bonus in 2015 and $4 million this time around. Not just the United States Soccer Federation (USSF), even global body FIFA are guilty of not compensating the women's footballers better. France, winners of the 2018 Men's Football World Cup, took home $38 million in prize money while that of USA stood at paltry $4 million as against overall pools of $400 million and $30 million respectively.

Things are much of the same and yet so different in India. The 57th ranked Indian women's team have concerns over pay gap as well but any comparison would be unfair believes goalkeeper Aditi Chauhan. And she won't be wrong.

Indian women's league football has been festered by lack of funds, not enough teams or players. It has meant the league has not gone the distance required to give the players enough time on the pitch - an issue seen with men's football players too. The advent of India Women's League (IWL) in 2016 saw six clubs participating for competition over two weeks. The 2017-18 season had seven teams and was played across three weeks. A year later, the number of teams increased to 12, divided into two groups, and played over a 17 day period. As far as the earnings is concerned, there is no contract system and players negotiate their own salaries with the national federation (AIFF).

In comparison, US women's league football has had its blips too. Despite hosting the World Cup twice - in 1999 and 2003 - US women's leagues have started and then shut down only to rise in another form. Women's Professional Soccer replaced Women's United Soccer Association before the birth of the current league in National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) that has been around since 2012. Despite the stutter in regular leagues, NWSL has been able to maintain its nine-team status, for the most part, with only two teams folding.

"There is a gap but it's just that we can't really compare. If you talk about Indian football, you can't compare women's football with men's football because we don't have a league to compare to. There's no level playing field to compare. We don't have a league that runs nine months a year like it does for the boys. They have two leagues, they have other divisions as well. Practically it doesn't make sense for us to compare," said the 26-year-old Delhi resident.

"IWL that started for women's football is very new. I think the third edition was just concluded which is again, barely a three week or a month-long tournament. So it's unfair to compare a nine-month-long tournament with a one-month tournament. But if you compare the size of the IWL over the past few years and a few editions, it's definitely improved. The wages have improved, the salary has improved, there are more players, younger players participating and it's a great platform to build up from. I think every year it's improving and I see a very positive contribution from the AIFF, the government and the private sector," she claimed while seated for a relaxed chat just days before heading to Spain for the COTIF Cup.

When put in the hot seat to suggest the first step in improving the condition of women's football in India and to nurture more players for the future, Aditi said Indian Super League (ISL) and I-League clubs should be encouraged to field women's teams as well.

"I think with the current scenario, I would really encourage and probably make it compulsory for the ISL and I-League clubs to field a women's team as well. The kind of marketing, the kind of commercial aspect that they can get is what is needed to professionalise, make this IWL bigger and longer and stronger. So I think that could be one of the things and I would obviously, then encourage the government also to participate in and support this league to make it sustainable. It shouldn't be a league that goes on and shuts again," she said.

Things are not all smooth sailing for the Indian men's football team either. But they are still in better condition - financially and professionally. Aditi doesn't hesitate in acknowledging that.

"While the men's team also have their own issues, but that's always going to warn you for the future. It's a trial and error method and that's how you figure what best works for you. You wouldn't imagine that US women's team who have won the World Cup thrice or four times to be fighting for equal pay. I mean it's the 21st century and essentially in the modern world, girls are still fighting for equal pay."

"As the men's football tries to figure its way out, their learnings would help in professionalising the women's league as well. Things are improving and I'm not saying it is the best - there are loads of things that can be done better but it is a learning experience and it is heading in the right direction."

'Time for us to step up after the exposure tours'

India women's team have been on the up in 2019. Since January, they've played 18 matches and won 12, drawn one and lost five to climb in the latest FIFA rankings. With exposure tours to Hong Kong, Indonesia and Turkey coupled with the SAFF Championships, Olympic Qualifiers Round 2 and Hero Gold Cup, the team has played plenty of football. India won the SAFF Championships for the fifth time but couldn't progress to the final in the inaugural Gold Cup. Next on the agenda is the COTIF Cup in L'Alcúdia, Valencia.

"We've been doing really well and the exposure we've got since December has really helped us to get the results in the big tournaments. It is a good step to play a tournament in Europe. We played last year as well but didn't get a good result, we didn't win any match, so this year, with the experience we've picked, it will be great advantage for us. It is time for us to step up now especially with the kind of exposure we've received. There are more expectations, more responsibility and everyone has started talking about women's football in India," she said confidently.

Aditi, who had garnered plenty of limelight when signed by West Ham United, is thus not new to the media glare. She understands it is part and parcel of the job especially while representing a country like India. "When you're representing a big country like India, there's always some sort of expectation and responsibility. When you start getting recognised and covered by the media, it is then up to you how you take that responsibility. Do you cave under that pressure or do you take on that added responsibility and continue to do the work that you've been doing for many years. With the exposure tours, it's also about the off-field experience you get and help you grow as a person and as a player. Earlier this year, India hosted the Gold Cup and it was covered well by AIFF and Indian media. That was also something new for all of us. It helped us handle ourselves and the pressure, the responsibility much better. We're overall a better-prepared side now with the youngsters as well. And they are also better prepared for the future," said the India Rush player.

She gave credit to her friends and family for standing by her through highs and lows and proving to be the support system to cope with pressure. "Family and friends play a very big role. They were there when West Ham happened, when I was out injured for almost a year and that was a very difficult phase," she said referring to a career-threatening ACL injury that needed surgery before continuing, "I was again injured during Olympic qualifiers. So, it has been a roller coaster ride and it is the friends and family which stick by you and that really makes a difference. Gold Cup wasn't great for me, I didn't give a good performance and it was a low point. But it has also taught me to be a better person and player and prepare for matches."

"We don't have a sports psychologist with the team. But I have worked with a psychologist when I picked up the injury. During that phase, when I was recovering, I worked with the sports psychologist and it helped me big time. I think it's one of the reasons I take everything in a positive way and learn from experiences," she clarified.

Every day you can't be your best but you have to find a way to manage.

Aditi has achieved big things in her career. She was part of the Under-19 team when just 17, joined West Ham to become the first Indian woman to play in an English league and now dons the jersey of the national team. She continues to aspire to do well each time and it is telling in her voice as she discusses the mindset of a professional footballer. "I go into matches wanting to be the best and when you come (up) short, you question yourself and it plays in your mind. And it happens even if you've done well or not. There is no point in dwelling on it for too long. I think that was my biggest takeaway from the Gold Cup. I kept thinking about it and made it worse for myself. Mentally I wasn't prepared for the next match where I could have recovered from the prior game and done better. I thought about all the scenarios instead of playing my natural game an enjoying my game. That's the worst thing I did to myself and that's what I told the youngsters who I see might be going through a similar phase. Every day you can't be your best but you have to find a way to manage. So as a goalkeeper, I want to focus on the saves I made than the mistakes," she stated.

Away from the regular activities in reading and listening to music from her own playlist, there are some team building activities, too, that she uses to unwind. "Before a match I don't want to think about it too much. I tell myself 'this is what I've been training all my life for', 'worked so hard for this' and 'there's nothing new I would be doing' so things to calm me down. So the whole team sings Sakhiyaan (by Maninder Buttar) together and it was played as soon as we sat on the bus during the SAFF Cup. Then there is Lamberghini (by The Doorbeen) which is strange because there are not a lot of Punjabis in the squad. One of the Manipuris (Dangmei Grace) knows the lyrics better than I do. She sings the lyrics properly while rest of us just go with the tune. So these are the team songs and then you put on your own music and try and listen to that. Once we're in the dressing room, I focus on revising the points raised in the team meeting. From then on it is about getting mentally and physically ready," she finished.

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