Women's football has been the buzzword in Indian footballing circle recently with things hardly slowing down even with everything else coming to a halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It all started with the nation winning the rights to host the 2020 FIFA U-17 World Cup last year. The tournament since then has been postponed to 2021 due to the pandemic. In June this year, it was announced that India would also host the 2022 AFC Women's Asian Cup. This was followed by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) making fielding a women's team a part of club licensing criteria.
As usual, the narrative around India hosting these tournaments has been about how it would prove to be the catalyst for change and the landscape of women's football would see a complete overhaul. That narrative, though, is up for debate. Some would say the most effective method to develop women's football would be to invest at grassroots, in age-group structure, state and national-level leagues instead of a top-down approach where the success of hosting a global or continental tournament is expected to eventually trickle down. But whatever gains there are to be made by hosting such prestigious tournaments i.e. infrastructure development, gain in popularity, unearthing new stars could be undone by the economic calamity that now lurks around as a result of the global pandemic.
American brokerage firm Goldman Sachs has made a prediction of India's GDP contracting by five percent in the financial year 2020-21, which would make it the worst performance for India, ever. Such an economic slump is bound to adversely impact all sporting activities and their sustainability but more so women's football, which appears to be extremely vulnerable with existing issues of poor infrastructure, lack of contracts, matches, lower wages, lack of popularity and no broadcast.
India are to host the U-17 Women's World Cup in 2021. Image: Twitter/@NerocaFC
The global association of professional footballers " FIFPro " also in its recent report stated that women's football faces an "existential threat" as a result of the pandemic with players facing the danger of losing their livelihoods. The situation has the potential to turn graver in India considering how women's football largely remains an amateur industry.
One has to understand that the footballing structure in India is a lot different than the most popular sport of the land " cricket. While state association teams, both at senior and junior levels, backed by a rich and powerful Board for Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) form the bedrock of sport, in case of football, it's the private clubs. The health of these football clubs is directly related to the economic trajectory and the health of women's football is directly dependent on the trajectory of the clubs' health.
A steep downward movement in the economic trajectory presents a very real chance of clubs going bust. Profit-making is still a distant dream for most Indian clubs, even at the highest level, though they have sponsors to help them to an extent. A lot of football clubs, mainly beneath the top level, still rely on the owner's money, businesses, and community funding for survival.
In such a scenario, the whole footballing ecosystem is expected to take a heavy hit in the near future. While men's football in India remains far from being in a perfect state, its priority status for the national federation, the involvement of corporates, availability of sponsors, and more importantly, it's vast structure involving multiple national senior level leagues, multiple state-level youth leagues, tournaments, academies must help it deal with the blow and come out successfully.
On the other hand, the wafer-thin structure of women's football has a massive challenge hurtling towards it. AIFF Executive Committee member and PIFA (academy) director Anjali Shah agrees that the pandemic would have a "long-lasting" impact on women's football.
"The COVID-19 pandemic will have a long-lasting adverse effect on all footballing activities in India.The men's game, being more popular and having considerable more financial support, will manage to bounce back but the women's game will suffer irreparable damage with lots of smaller clubs shutting shop due to lack of financial resources.
"Private clubs that are dependent on business for support will be hit hardest as all business activities have taken a hit due to the pandemic. Allocating funds for football activities will be last on the mind of corporates. Similarly smaller clubs with community-based funding will take a hit," says Anjali.
Indian Women's League (IWL) is the only national-level professional league in the country. IWL began in 2017 with six teams and saw 12 teams fighting it out for the title in 2020, which was wrapped up in 21 days.
It's difficult to nurture talent for international matches and provide financial sustenance with a 21-day national league, more importantly, the future of many of those teams could become doubtful, a point also made by Geetanjali Khuntia, who was the manager of the Rising Student's Club that won the IWL in 2018 and has coached various age-group Odisha girls teams.
"The women's football structure is not as professional as men's, where you can make an earning the whole year. Most clubs sign players only before the tournament and take care of them for the duration of the tournament¦it could be a problem for clubs to participate in tournaments going forward due to financial pressure," says Geetanjali.
The bigger concern, however, is for the structure beneath IWL which serves as the supply line for women footballers but appears to be even more brittle. Only a handful of associations conduct state-level leagues which work as a qualifier for the IWL. Some of those states have, at times, found themselves on the wrong side of the rule due to not adhering to AIFF guidelines and non-registration of the players.
According to AIFF's strategic plan for 2019-2022 which was released in 2019, there were no states or union territories with U-13, U-15 or U-18 youth leagues for girls (by 2018), though the number of states and union territories for the same age groups stood at 18, 18 and 20 respectively. The AIFF has projected a gradual increase in the number of leagues over the period of the strategic plan. Similarly, only a few district-level leagues exist in India.
Almost non-existent structures means very few matches and tournaments which then translates into very little revenue for sustenance, no sponsors, no fans, and no broadcast. Love for the game remains the only motivation but with business and incomes taking a hit under the pandemic, the uncertain future could prove to be the biggest test for this love, forcing multiple leagues, tournaments, or clubs to fold.
"We have not been relying on sponsor money for the last four years, so we won't be impacted a lot¦finding sponsors, in general, would be a problem, for sport and especially for women's football it would be more difficult," says Seeni Mohaideen, owner of Tamil Nadu based women's team Sethu FC. The club won the IWL title in 2019.
Thoudam Hemchandra, general secretary of 2020 IWL runners-up KRYPHSA FC, in his conversation spoke about the financial struggles of the club which highlights the magnitude of the problem that could arise by a collective fall in income.
"The duration of our training camps (before a tournament) depends on the financial condition of the club. Sometimes training and practice are done for more or less than a month. If the financial condition of the club is good then we do training for over a month. In worse conditions, we rely on donations, charity shows, and bumper housie (game show) to bear the training and travel expenses for a tournament. Finding a sponsor is still a huge problem," says Hemchandra.
Closing down of clubs, leagues, or a halt of footballing activity would also have a direct impact on the players. The U-17 players, who are to take part in the World Cup next year, would be taken care of by AIFF.
"AIFF will take all measures to get the under-17 players ready for the upcoming FIFA U-17 World Cup to be held in India in February and March of next year. In the run-up to the World Cup, a series of activities around promoting the women's game was planned and one can only hope that we can get the outreach FIFA had envisioned. All necessary precautions will be taken keeping the health of the players as the top priority," says Anjali.
But the same cannot be said about the other players, seniors or juniors. Women footballers already struggle to make a living out of football and rely on part-time or full-time jobs for sustenance. Closing down of avenues for playing football and a cut in the stream of income, whether from football or elsewhere, would only mean piling up of the struggle.
"The ecosystem and duration of women's league in India do not allow the players to solely depend upon football as a means of financial sustenance. Quite a few professional women football players in India have a job working for some PSUs like the Railways, Police, or Sports Authority of India Coaching and are covered for salary during these difficult times. Staff who are dependent on income from training are under pressure from the current situation and are connecting with their district and state associations for relief. Most academies have started some online activities to compensate for the loss of income. Players have started alternate jobs like delivery and supply of essential goods as have people from other walks of life," says Anjali.
Also, a large number of women footballers in India come from the rural and the underprivileged background. Loss of income for families due to the pandemic, could force the aspiring and upcoming footballers to never take up the sport or drop out to support their families. The short-term future supply line for national teams and clubs of all levels could also be in danger.
"COVID-19 has impacted everyone's livelihood, if you are in salaried job then it's okay but people who are self-employed are facing a lot of issues. Most of the footballers come from underprivileged backgrounds, so if a family's income is impacted then players would also be impacted. Not because of someone's mistake but due to COVID-19. It won't impact the players for FIFA U-17 World Cup because AIFF is providing financial support to them. But local players have to train on their own, you need a good diet also, so there can be problems," says legendary footballer Oinam Bembem Devi.
The pandemic already had a lot of players fending for their diet and other needs.
"Most of the footballers in Odisha come from an underprivileged background. They generally belong to families where the breadwinners are daily wage labourers, so the current economic downturn has impacted the diet of the players. Most of the players that I am in contact with are not able to maintain the regular diet," says Geetanjali.
Solutions to the challenge
The evolution of women's football in India has been moving at snail's pace for decades but it did gather some steam in the last couple of years. The team that was dropped from FIFA rankings in 2009 due to inactivity for 18 months, played over 20 matches last year with exposure tours abroad. They are currently ranked 55 as compared to men's team that sits at the 108th spot.
AIFF established a department dedicated to women's football in 2015 and in 2017, IWL took off. Though it still remains very much a tournament and not a league, it is expected to expand to 25 teams and a longer duration in the coming years. Similarly, AIFF stated in its strategic plan that they would start youth leagues at the district level to provide a renewed push. But considering the unprecedented nature of the challenge that stands at the door, it's imperative for all the stakeholders to shift their focus on tackling the issue.
AIFF, on its part, could look to increase funding for women's football and also enhance investment at grassroots along with preparing India for the upcoming mega tournaments.
"Local clubs are going to have fewer resources with them and they will have to spend on their players. They would be impacted, so it would be great if there's help from the federation and state associations," says Bembem.
It's been reported that the Manipur state government has offered financial support to KRYPHSA FC and other I-League clubs from the state. A similar initiative should be taken from other state governments and the central sports ministry.
"The best practice in the current situation is for all stakeholders to come together and assess the damage done. They need to look at the requirements of the players and reach out to the government for relief packages for those severely affected. Sport is a sector that attracts 18 percent GST so we are well within our limits asking for relief during these difficult times. We hope all the concerned authorities take note of this impact especially on women's football and come in with relief measures in order not to lose the momentum gained in the women's game. All the effort of getting the game to the level it has reached today will otherwise be in vain," says Anjali.
It's also time for the big football clubs to open their hearts to women footballers. Currently, Gokulam Kerala FC is the only I-league or Indian Super League (ISL) club to have a women's team in IWL. The involvement of more top clubs in women's football has been a long-standing demand from footballers ranging from Bembem to Aditi Chauhan. The clubs which are backed by conglomerates, the likes of ATK, Mohun Bagan, and Bengaluru FC must see the crisis as an opportunity and make their foray into women's football now.
"The established clubs need to hire the players and look after them, this will allow the footballers to recover. Clubs, football associations, government have to pitch in with support," says Geetanjali.
Where India stand in five years from now amongst their contemporaries in women's football would depend on how we tackle the impact of the economic downturn as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. If we are to truly change the landscape of women's football in India, first and foremost we need to ensure that the dent due to this economic downturn doesn't get deeper followed by drastic improvement in the structure of the sport starting from the grassroots.