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Growing up in Thoubal, Manipur, Yumnam Kamala Devi didn’t know there was such a thing as women’s football.

He had cut his hair to be ‘one of the boys’; sneaking out of his house to avoid facing his parents’ wrath for playing a ‘child’s game’; He humiliated other players with his body feints and dribbles, and scored goals for fun, not even knowing there was a pro setup.

Kamala, who was the Indian Football Federation Player of the Year in 2017, was not the only one to think so.

Except in recent years, women’s football has been practically non-existent in the country. There has been no youth program, more than half of the states don’t have a tournament for older players, the national league lasts just a couple of months, and the last time the national team played in a major international tournament was in 2014. Asian games.

In the complete absence of structure and with very limited opportunities to make a living from it, the only thing that kept Kamala and her teammates motivated was, at the risk of sounding too clichΓ©, their passion for the game.

Against this background, the Asian Cup, which kicks off on Thursday in Mumbai, has the potential to become the turning point for women’s football in India. Hosting the continental main event is a continuation of AIFF’s top-down approach, in which they bring major tournaments to the country and then build an ecosystem around them.

top down approach

This was first attempted with the U-17 Men’s World Cup in 2017, which was used to strengthen the grassroots. The jury is still out on whether it brought any lasting change, but that hasn’t stopped the federation from taking a similar path for women’s football by bringing in the Asian Cup and U-17 World Cup, which will take place in October this year. . year to the country.

Once again, no one knows how useful this will be in the long run. But the pressure of fielding a competitive team has forced the AIFF to correct course.

Thanks to the Asian Cup, the team got its first foreign coach, the Swedish Thomas Dennerby, with a suitable pedigree. The players got the facilities and attention they deserved. And he has played more matches against opponents from outside the South Asian zone since 2019 compared to a whole decade before that.
Despite all the attention that has been paid to them in recent months, it is what the team, led by Loitongbam Ashalata Devi, do in the next 10 days that can really define the way forward for women’s football.

India kicks off its campaign on Thursday against Asian Cup debutant Iran. Once they get over a rough start, they will face Chinese Taipei. India beat them 1-0 in October last year and it is a match that coach Dennerby believes his team can win. Indeed, it is a game they will have to win to have a chance of advancing to the quarter-finals given that their last opponent in the group stage is eight-time champions China, whom they will face on January 26.

The fact that there is even talk of India reaching the quarter-finals shows how much the team has improved recently. In 2017, during the 2018 Asian Cup qualifiers, India played three games, lost all three, conceded 25 goals and scored just one. Before that, at the 2014 Asian Games, the team was beaten 10-0 by South Korea and Thailand.

Playing with speed, style

The increased focus on their fitness, technical and tactical training, coupled with exposure trips to Brazil, Sweden, Turkey, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates means such disparate scoring lines are now rare.
Instead, India, ranked 55th in the world and 11th in Asia, play with a style and freedom rarely seen in previous teams. One of the youngest teams in the competition – with an average age of 23, and with 15 of the 23 players under the age of 25 – India play with a lot of speed although it remains to be seen if they can maintain the same level. intensity throughout.

There is, however, enough quality in the team to see them fulfill their first goal, reaching the quarter-finals.

Goalkeeper Aditi Chauhan has grown in stature since her time with West Ham Ladies; Captain Ashalata Devi, one of the most experienced players on the team and one of three finalists nominated for Asia Player of the Year in 2019, will lead the defense, where she will be paired with the tournament’s youngest player, 16-year-old Shilky Devi. . hemam; midfielder Indumathi Kathiresan has been instrumental in midfield, while Dangmei Grace and Manisha Kalyan, who scored against Brazil, will lead the forward line.
These national team stars, who have played in obscurity for almost their entire careers, will suddenly share the stage with some of the sport’s global icons, including Australia’s Sam Kerr, who finished second in the FIFA Best Awards earlier this week, his Chelsea teammate. Ji So-yun from South Korea and Saki Kumagai from Japan, who plays for Bayern Munich.

world cup qualification

There’s also an extra carrot: a place at the 2023 World Cup. Asia has six direct berths, of which one has already been awarded to Australia, who will co-host the tournament with New Zealand. The other 11 teams will fight for the remaining five direct spots, while two other teams will qualify for the intercontinental playoff. That means that if India manage to reach their goal of reaching the quarter-finals, they will be closer than ever to a World Cup spot.

However, any talk of the World Cup is still premature. Even Dennerby is unsure how his team will handle the pressure and expectations in a serious tournament, having only played friendly matches so far where not much is at stake.

For India, the tournament will be a success even if it manages to maintain a sustained focus on women’s football. β€œIt’s a dream to even play in a tournament like this. Now, we have to build on this dream,” says Ashalata, who like Kamala used to sneak out of her house and play with children, says. Chauhan adds: “We are fighting for women’s football and we hope to have some impact in our country, however small.”

After years of neglect, this is your moment in the sun.

Two cases of Covid in the Indian team

Two members of the Indian women’s team have tested positive for COVID-19 and are currently in isolation at a designated health care facility, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) said in a statement on Wednesday. It emerged that one of the players was scheduled to start the team’s opening game against Iran on Thursday. The AIFF, however, has not disclosed the identities of those infected.

Indian time:
vs. Iran, January 20
vs. Chinese Taipei, January 23
vs. China, January 26

All matches live on Eurosport, 7:30 p.m.

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