When national team forward Bala Devi signed for Glasgow team Rangers in the Scottish Women’s Premier League earlier this year, it seemed just the kind of positive press women’s football in India needed the year it was going to host the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup.
It was a world which still hadn’t been brought to its knees by the novel coronavirus. When the pandemic jettisoned sport, Bala’s Rangers career was one league game old. The women’s league in Scotland will resume on Sunday– Bala’s team will play Heart of Midlothian on the opening day– but women’s football is likely to be the hardest hit among all sport by Covid-19.
Just over a year back, it was basking in the glory of a World Cup in France that had got the world looking. The tournament’s viewership figures were over a billion, according to football world body Fifa, despite it being held simultaneously with two major continental men’s tournaments–the Copa America and the Concacaf Gold Cup–and overlapping with the men’s 50-over cricket World Cup.
Things have gone south since. “The current situation is likely to present an almost existential threat to the women’s game if no specific considerations are given to protect the women’s football industry,” said a report published by FIFPro, the global professional footballers’ body, in April.
“One way that Covid-19 threatens elite women’s football is in a diminishment of expected income from gate receipts, sponsorship, and merchandising, likely caused by drops in global economies,” said a study published in the Managing Sport and Leisure journal which highlighted some of the vulnerabilities faced by women’s football in England as a consequence of the pandemic. “…There is likely to be increased competition for funding as all clubs fight for access to a smaller pool of potential sponsors.”
In India, where the women’s game doesn’t have a professional structure, things remain uncertain. Since the last season of the Indian Women’s League (IWL), which ended in mid-February, India’s women footballers have been out of action.
“Till now, I had been doing fitness training at home. Only recently have I started going out running,” said Kamala Devi, who works with Indian Railways in Guwahati and was the All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) Woman Footballer of the Year in 2017. “But I haven’t practised on the ground since the lockdown began (in March). That’s something I miss a lot. I juggle with the ball myself and I just hope the conditions improve soon so we can resume practice on the ground soon.”
Priya PV coached Gokulam Kerala to the 2019-20 IWL title. One month later, Kerala went into a hard lockdown like the rest of the country. Since then Priya, who works with the state government’s sports division, has been juggling roles of a football coach and Covid warrior. Having worked in the state government’s helpline centre in the first two months, Priya and her colleagues are now helping coordinate and oversee quarantine facilities in the Kannur district.
As part of her job, Priya coaches 52 players from local schools. “We are holding online coaching through video these days. Every Saturday, we also hold an interactive program. This past Saturday, IM Vijayan spoke to our players,” she said. Gokulam’s plans to start a football academy for girls have been postponed by the pandemic, she said. “There is Section 144 in Calicut (Kozhikode), where the club is based, because of the rising coronavirus cases. It’s a big setback too all our girls, mentally and physically. You can continue trying to stay fit at home or take online coaching classes but they are no substitute for actual training on the ground.
“Most of our players come from poor or middle-class families. You can’t expect them to have facilities or even have the space to train at home. Mentally, these times are taking a toll on players too. At young ages, players prefer spending time with peer groups. That is not happening at the moment. I am interacting with my players regularly and I can understand how frustrating it is for them,” said Priya.
The AIFF has resumed competitive football in the country with the 2nd Division League final round in Kalyani and Kolkata. This event is expected to be the testing ground ahead of the new seasons of the Indian Super League (ISL) and the I-League. However, there is not much clarity on the IWL yet.
“We might tentatively have the national team camp from January,” said Aditi Chauhan, the India and former West Ham Ladies goalkeeper. The national team players, Chauhan said, have been trying to remain engaged through video conferences and the team’s goal remains doing well at the 2022 AFC Women’s Asian Cup, to be held in India.
“It’s hard to say how much of a setback it (the pandemic) is. There’s nothing you can do really. The only thing that you can do is work hard, make the most of the opportunity whenever you get it,” said Chauhan.
SETBACK TO STAKEHOLDERS
India, hosts of the 2020 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup that has been provisionally postponed to early-2021, has a semi-formal women’s football industry with significant inter-regional differences. While the Sports Authority of India (SAI) is putting in a few crores to help the country field a competitive team at the U-17 tournament, the women’s game is starved for funding elsewhere with a few not-for-profit organisations being the most active grassroots stakeholders in the game.
The Delhi-based Khel Khel Mein (KKM) Foundation, which provides training to many young girls from low-income households, is one. Co-founder Anirban Ghosh said the coronavirus pandemic and India’s crumbling economy would have grave consequences for women’s football. “With the country reeling in a negative GDP, severe job losses, and with CSR funds getting prioritised towards Covid relief, the fund raising challenge gets even steeper for organisations like us,” he said.
Ghosh said since the lockdown began, KKM tried to keep players engaged through online activities. “Towards mid-May to early-June, players started showing signs of impatience, anxiety, and waiting to get back to playing.”
By June, the organisation helped organise 1v1 matches of 10 minutes. “As unlock started in July, we started to move into community and started organising sessions in groups of four to six.”
However, like in many other parts of the country, match opportunities have dried up. The organisation’s aim of providing players with 50 matches a season has been dashed.
“In a way, the pandemic further pushes back the snail-paced movement of women’s football. And the economic scenario makes it very difficult for smaller clubs/NGOs to further their “dream projects” in the long term,” Ghosh said.