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A league of their own for India’s women

(FIFA.com)
Eastern Sporting Union crowned 2017 Indian Women's League champions
  • India women’s football benefitting from FIFA Forward Programme
  • FIFA provided funding and impetus to establish women’s league in India
  • Strong national league has helped underpin growth for numerous nations

Football in India received a massive boost last year as the FIFA U-17 World Cup was welcomed by enormous crowds and huge interest across the world’s second largest nation. With that major landmark ticked off, attention has now focused on further developing women’s football in this sprawling and diverse nation of 1.3 billion people.

FIFA, through its Forward Programme, invests money back into the game by working together with member associations on a tailor-made approach to development, with India seeing USD 700,000 contributed to help establish a women's league in the country: the Indian Women’s League (IWL).

So far, India’s impact at international level has been limited. Though there has been a national side since the 1970s, India failed to even field a team for FIFA Women’s World Cup™ qualifiers as recently as 2011. Success over the years has been infrequent, and typically limited to dominating the South Asian Football Federation championship against regional rivals.

The experiences of other countries around the globe indicate that success of a vibrant national women’s competition is pivotal to growth. With this in mind, the world governing body and the AIl India Football Federation (AIFF) have put a focus on growing a sustainable and competitive club competition. The hope is that a new women's league can not only help underpin a stronger national team, but can also provide a crucial link from grassroots level.

"Some of the oldest football clubs in the world hail from India,” said Sanjeevan Balasingam, FIFA Member Association Regional Director for Asia and Oceania. “However, there is no established club culture yet for women's football in India. So the IWL will help achieve that and positive strides are already being made.

“India's FIFA Women's ranking is presently 57 and IWL will create a larger talent pool which will benefit Indian football and its national team. IWL is also acting as a tool for women's empowerment in India.”

The first step was taken last year with the first edition of the IWL.

Oinam Bembem Devi, the nation’s most-capped player, has long been a strong advocate for developing women’s football. For Devi, the creation of the league is necessary if the game is to reach the next level.

“Women’s football in India needed a push to progress and the Indian Women’s League has certainly acted as a major boost for every girl who ever dreamt of playing football in the country,” Devi said.

“The league will expand the base of the player pyramid structure and with more women players being involved in the game, the national team is bound to benefit as the coach will have more players to choose from.

“More players in the pipeline means competition for spots in the national team and competition leads to evolution of players.”

The first season ended in poignant fashion with Devi leading Eastern Sporting Union to the inaugural crown, in what was the final match of her decorated two-decade career.

The league begins with regionalised pre-qualifiers, and ultimately leads to a centralised final round, which commences this Sunday. And the early indications are positive, with a record crowd of 10,000 and strong viewership of the matches - all of which were live streamed - resulting in a cumulative reach of 8.8 million during last season's final round.

One of the aims of the competition is to help motivate state federations and indirectly assist the national team through a more comprehensive scouting system for female players. On pure numbers alone, it is certainly achieving that aim, with the numbers of states and clubs participating for the ongoing second season increasing significantly. 

“This is a beginning for the women’s game in the country,” added Praful Patel, AIFF President. “The IWL will only get bigger with every day. The league gives our women footballers the option to take [football] up as a career.”

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