These women have other goals, but does anyone really care about women’s football in India?
Let’s not deny it. Cricket is not an insect but a mammoth in India, one that crushes every other sport. Yet some other sports are slowly budding thanks to promotions like the Indian Super League, the Indian Badminton League, Pro Kabaddi and so on. Although the ISL has given football in India a shot in the arm, women’s football is very far away from the limelight.
Let’s have a look at the few Indian women who have struggled to make it in the game. Most of them are in need of support to make their footie ambitions come true.
Oinam Bembem Devi
Thanks to the film starring Priyanka Chopra, everybody knows Mary Kom from Manipur. But few will have heard of the other Manipuri female sportsperson Bembem Devi in spite of her having been declared the AIFF Woman Footballer of the Year in 2001 and 2013. She captained the Indian team that emerged the winner at the 11th South Asian Games held in Bangladesh in 2010 and the 2012 SAFF Women’s Championship in Sri Lanka. She currently plays for New Radiant in the Maldives, where she led the team to victory again.
Bembem started playing at the age of 10 and made her debut for India at the age of 15. She says she is married to only “the beautiful game” and devotes her life to inspiring other girls to join the sport. She has faced several challenges and obstacles on the path to where she stands today.
Some of you may have heard of the group of 18 tribal girls who won the 2013 Gasteiz Cup in Spain. That victory was the fruit of a tremendous effort put in by 30 year old American Franz Gastler, who wanted to fight child marriage and human trafficking, and use football as a platform to empower and educate girls.
These 18 Girls are from the outskirts of Ranchi and had a lot of problems to get their football going. Apparently, they were even slapped and made to sweep floors when they went to their local panchayat to obtain their birth certificates so that they could go overseas. Such are the hardships that Indian women footballers have to endure.
You may not have heard of this team, though. The Dooars XI is based near the India-Bhutan border, and is a club run on money earned at a tea stall run by the players. Shakuntala Ahura, one of the team members, is a veteran who has played for the Indian national team and has not received any support from the government to date. The team coach, Bhabani Munda, has been running the tea stall for 20 years to support the girls’ footballing ambitions. These girls lack amenities and kit items as as basic as a football, but are high on passion for the game, and that keeps them going.
The biggest problem is the social stigma attached to girls who behave in what are regarded as inappropriate ways: “girls cannot behave like this”. Many families push their daughters into giving up the sport. Add to this the lack of support and funds for the sport; no wonder very few girls take up football. “There’s no money, no sponsors, and even national players don’t have enough camps, tournaments and opportunities to practice all year round. It’s mostly individual efforts on our part to keep fit and play the game,” says Aditi Chauhan, a prominent member of the Indian women’s football team.
Despite all the hardships, the Indian women’s team ranks 50th in the world, 100 places higher than its male counterpart. Is anyone listening?
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