AFC Women’s Asian Cup 2022: The way forward for Indian women’s football after heartbreaking exit

Before India can dream of playing at the FIFA World Cup, there are a few steps required to ensure that the team is competitive at the continental and world level.

Anirban Ghosh and Arka Bhattacharya January 28, 2022 15:57:51 IST
AFC Women’s Asian Cup 2022: The way forward for Indian women’s football after heartbreaking exit

India's hopes of progressing deep into the 2022 AFC Women's Asian Cup were dashed by the emergence of multiple COVID cases in the squad. Image credit: Official Facebook page of Indian Football Team

The Indian national team is out of the AFC Women’s Asian Cup. A rising number of Covid-19 positive cases within the Indian camp meant that the Blue Tigresses were unable to field the minimum number of players for the match against Chinese Taipei to go ahead.

With India’s withdrawal, their chances of making it to the World Cup also went up in smoke. Before India can dream of playing at the World Cup though, there are a few steps required to ensure that the team is competitive at the continental and world level.

In this piece, we will be looking at some facts and solutions pertaining to the Indian women’s football ecosystem.

AFC Womens Asian Cup 2022 The way forward for Indian womens football after heartbreaking exit

AFC Womens Asian Cup 2022 The way forward for Indian womens football after heartbreaking exit

— Till date there have been 23 World Cups being hosted for women across all age groups — while hosting rights of next three events (one across each age group) is being awarded and delayed due to the covid pandemic.

— In total, 18 unique countries have hosted (or will be hosting) these 26 editions of the mega event (five each in Asia and Europe, four in North America and two each in Oceania and South America).

— Out of these 18 unique hosts, only six have managed at-least one top four finish ever (33 per cent). Out of these six nations, four won the world cup (22 per cent) and total five nations have been finalists.

— Out of 23 events — the silverware share is heavily skewed.

A. 8 winners/gold medals by Asian Teams, 7 each by European and North American Teams

B. 9 runners-up/silver medals by Asian Teams, 7 by European nations and 4 by North American Teams

C. 4 third-placed/bronze medals by Asian Teams, 12 by European nations and 4 by North American nations

— We infer from the above that amongst a possible 69 podium spots, 62 occasions (90 per cent) have seen nations across Asia (30 per cent), Europe (38 per cent) or North America (22 per cent) achieving them. Only 7 times (10 per cent), teams from other three continents have managed to be on the podium.

— Looking closely at the Asian context, only seven Asian nations have qualified on merit for the World Cup across all these 23 events, and two nations have played/will be playing as hosts. (Jordan and India)

Out of seven teams, all the 21 podium finishes on the World Cup stage (across age groups) were achieved by five countries (Japan, China, DPR Korea, South Korea and Chinese Taipei).

Based on the ranking data set of the last 19 years, here’s a snapshot of a clear pattern of footballing performance/excellence. There's a clear bracket of Top 5/ Big 5 (Rank 1-5) and then Next 5 (Rank 6-10 in Asia). The Big 5 is also consistently in the world’s top 20 footballing nations for women. The Next 5 (barring Chinese Taipei) is also consistently between 30-45 in global context.

AFC Womens Asian Cup 2022 The way forward for Indian womens football after heartbreaking exit

What it indicates is that these 9 nations have been playing more competitive matches against competitors from other continents or Asia and proving themselves on the field. Out of the top 10 in the list, six have a domestic league which is more than a decade old, span for an average of 6 months with a minimum of 15 games at the top level. This is in addition to lower tier of the league opportunities, national teams and school sports structures (especially Japan).

Although the senior World Cup has been expanded to a 32-team event (it was a 16-team event till 2011 and 24-team event in last two editions) with AFC slots increasing from five to six and two play-off slots, the road to World Cup and making the tournament regularly has to be through Asian dominance first.

Unless we are able to cement our spot on merit at the U16, U19 and Senior Asian Cups by surpassing Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Chinese Taipei and Uzbekistan, we can’t arrive at the global stage.

AFC Womens Asian Cup 2022 The way forward for Indian womens football after heartbreaking exit

Even if we look at 30 editions of Asian Cup (across U16, U19 and Senior categories) cumulatively, across 90 podium finishes, 89 spots have been achieved by six nations — Japan, China, DPR Korea, South Korea and Chinese Taipei — and Australia (as they moved from OFC to AFC in 2006). Thailand is the only nation beyond this Big 6 in the continent to have bagged a bronze in the U17 AFC Women’s Championships. That very much sums up the women’s football scenario in Asia and the road beyond. To qualify for the World Cup on merit, the road moves through the far-east nations and the great Chinese wall with a bit of chasing after the Kangaroos as well.

An eight-pronged solution crops up for us to achieve our long-term goals.

AFC Womens Asian Cup 2022 The way forward for Indian womens football after heartbreaking exit

1. Ease entry barriers for new initiatives, support them in building capacity and sustainability. Have a program in place by state Football Associations for incubation programs rather than charging hefty affiliation fees.

The entry barriers for state and local leagues are too steep for smaller outfits who want to participate and test themselves at the highest level.

State associations demand exorbitant sums (upto Rs 10 lakh) for affiliation. This is done, to ensure that newer members do not have voting rights.

By having smaller outfits enter at the base level and charging them only the competition fee, the states stand to gain from a larger player pool and increased game-time.

2. Liason with government, SAI and academies to maximise infra utilisation, thus benefiting both ends in terms of increased revenues and lower unit cost respectively.

The step to privatise certain sections of public infrastructure is a welcome one. The next step is to ensure that the infrastructure is widely accessible to all interested parties.

The current turf culture in metropolitan cities mean that free spaces to play are dwindling. The quality and nature of these turfs mean that they are an attractive proposition to the financially well-off.

For a women’s team though which may have a budget of less than 10 lakh to last a year, it becomes difficult to train round the year. The booking of turfs these days cost you a minimum of 1,000 rupees an hour (with some exceptions). For a team wishing to have 100-150 training hours in a year, the cost of training throughout the year may go up to Rs 2-3 lakh a year, assuming a squad of 25 and two-hour training sessions.

A mapping of unutilised hours and opening them up at a lower cost to institutions in need may benefit all parties.

3. Increase the player pool: Have at least a 3-tier league structure with 35 games/ 2,500 minutes ensured for a player from U7 to U20 and for seniors 45 games/ 3,500 mins through zonal, state matches

A visual explainer might come in handy here.

AFC Womens Asian Cup 2022 The way forward for Indian womens football after heartbreaking exit AFC Womens Asian Cup 2022 The way forward for Indian womens football after heartbreaking exit AFC Womens Asian Cup 2022 The way forward for Indian womens football after heartbreaking exit AFC Womens Asian Cup 2022 The way forward for Indian womens football after heartbreaking exit

— STATE WISE STATUS OF DOMESTIC LEAGUES

Map Legend:

— 1 Tier: 10 clubs: The state league is a single tier in format and seven teams have participated across editions held over last four years (2018-19 onwards)

— 2 IWL: 2 unique teams have participated in IWL across four editions

— 2 players in NT: 2 players from the state have been in the national team or national camp across age groups (including U16, U17, U19 and Seniors). The data captures squad lists from 2013 — till date

A worrying sign here is that Manipur, Odisha and Haryana contribute approximately 60 per cent of the national team players. Out of 300 players mapped to NT squads since 2013, one-third of national team representation is from Manipur. The other states are playing catch-up and haven’t produced enough players to close this gap.

Since all players called for a camp don’t get selected for the NT, we assume that 20 per cent get eliminated post-camp which mathematically implies that India had 250 unique players across three NT age-group teams in the last nine years. If we further assume a squad (of 25) rolling overhaul every four years, then all these three teams (U16, U19, Seniors) don’t have backup/options.

A zonal stage between the state leagues and the national league is an interesting concept. This provides more matches for the best teams in zones, thus eliminating the need for more airfare, longer hotel bookings and higher cost-to-gametime ratio.

Zone wise:

1. Delhi-Haryana-Punjab-Himachal have 43 clubs

2. Karnataka- Kerala- Puducherry-Tamil Nadu- 44 clubs

3. Maharashtra-Goa-Gujarat- 47 clubs

4. Manipur-Mizoram- 12 clubs

5. West Bengal-Odisha-Jharkhand-Bihar -19 clubs

AFC Womens Asian Cup 2022 The way forward for Indian womens football after heartbreaking exit

4. Player education needs player development framework which encompasses the immediate ecosystem of the player, such as parents and non-footballing peers

Education, not just football wise, but also topics such as handling your body better, how to become a professional etc is key to a player’s development.

It is also important to educate decision makers such as peers and parents on the benefits of football to long-term development. Studies show that successful players, irrespective of economic strata, have supportive parents.

AFC Womens Asian Cup 2022 The way forward for Indian womens football after heartbreaking exit AFC Womens Asian Cup 2022 The way forward for Indian womens football after heartbreaking exit AFC Womens Asian Cup 2022 The way forward for Indian womens football after heartbreaking exit

5. Coach education to be broad-based, inclusive for people across domains and reduced cost for people to apply. Coach education should be an area of investment.

If current trends in India are considered, many applying for entry-level licenses are ex-players. While the cost is prohibitive to many wishing to take up licenses, those wishing to run recreational teams are put off by it.

For more women coaches to take up the badge in economically weaker zones, the costs of coach education programs have to be slashed. The language of instruction currently is English, and many comfortable in their own tongues miss out. For those that are willing to work in their own catchment areas, the language barrier has to be broken down.

6. Use technology at scale for player and club/ academy/player management of training hours, diversity of training hours, grading training quality by players/peer to peer ratings and tracking continuity of a player-coach-club relationship

A scientific outlook to training and player evaluation must be the end-goal. Though smaller clubs may struggle with this, this should certainly be within the reach of larger outfits aiming to play the Indian Women’s League.

Basic starting points such as minutes, touches, passes in each third, can surely be retrieved through the capture of training videos.

7. Leagues, tournaments should certainly be a decentralised, collaborative, revenue generating-profit sharing model to build outreach and the framework of scouting

As shown above, the centralisation of leagues and tournaments leaves players with very little game-time to showcase their skills throughout the year. This is a concern which can be achieved by keeping fewer responsibilities upon national leagues.

The cost of competing at the national level may be prohibitive to some. But these teams may possess gems who can move to higher outfits, thus benefiting the player and the player pool.

8. Official, scouts to be attached to zones, tournaments and annual leagues cumulatively

A robust scouting model for the senior women’s national team would involve watching at least 4,000 players across the year. The larger the player pool, the better for every stakeholder involved.

The urge to go zonal also stems from the size of the country, where it may be unfeasible for a women’s team from Arunachal to travel to Kerala. A longer calendar also means higher initiatives for women.

Note: Both authors are part of a community-run football club, Sangam Vihar FC, in New Delhi.

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