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Sunday, August 7, 2022

The players are ‘devastated’, ‘speechless’; the least they deserve now is a future

The phrase “so broken” and a broken heart emoji. The phrase “Silent, sad-hearted.”

And that’s it.

A day after the surprise cancellation of India’s AFC Women’s Asian Cup match against China Taipei – and the team’s subsequent elimination from the tournament – these are the only words we have heard from those most affected. players. The first tweet was made by goalkeeper Aditi Chauhan. The other, by right-back Dalema Chipper.

The best of India are now being booked into their hotel rooms, as COVID-19 is isolating through their bio bubble. They have been kicked out of the tournament they host, and their opening-day draw against Iran is null and void.

“When a top-down approach is taken, what happens when the summit is blown?”

For some, another streak towards continental glory may come too late in their career, for others – the youngsters – have seen two championships in the space of two years. All of them, for the entire 23 months, had nothing else on their mind, no other tangible career goal to work towards. Now, it has been snatched up in the harshest manners. They simply do not know what will happen next.

We have an AIFF statement with some of the content you’d expect, and before it – supporting the team, saying the future is bright – and some not necessarily – “let the finger point at anything”. We have two statements from the AFC that were all legal. We read the reports and heard a hum. None of that addresses the main question – what’s on the player’s mind? How does it affect their psyche?

This tournament, you see, was not only important, but vital. When a top-down approach is taken, what happens when the top is blown away?

The Asian Football Confederation had put all the proverbial eggs in the Asian Cup basket. Now, the continental championship will always be one of the main goals the FA is working towards, something other plans will work towards. This thing is understandable. It’s not just how they neglected everything else.

Even in the best-case scenario (one month of IWL, one month of Senior Nationals, one or two weeks of international tournaments like the SAFF Championship), the current system is barely enough for women in India to have a competitive football match.

This, however, is the worst case scenario (without the temptation of fate). There have been no league games in 23 months. Back then, women footballers in India vacillated between sitting at home, playing amongst themselves in the national camp, and touring countries as diverse as Uzbekistan, Sweden and Brazil for friendly matches. Some were lucky: they played three matches – yes, three – with Gokulam Kerala in the Asian Club Women’s Football Championship; The rest haven’t kicked a competitive ball since February 2020.

Meanwhile, their male counterparts have seen one and a half ACL qualifiers, one Serie A qualifier, and two Serie A qualifiers in that period.

The Indian Football Association (AIFF) has promised a longer term for the Indian Women’s League this year, but his behavior is still far from certain. Some states have gone ahead with their in-state tournaments – the Kerala State League for example is now running, and national defending champion Gokulam Kerala (without his key players) has qualified for the IWL. Many others have either suspended their work or haven’t started it yet.

FIFA has been counting on a good performance in the Asian Cup, and a possible qualification for the World Cup to show that Indian women’s football is on the right track. Now that he’s gone, what happens to those stuck on the path that doesn’t exist?

Not even the basics are covered. The team’s current head coach, Thomas Dennerby, will return to coach the Under-17 side, which he snatched away early last year. Who will lead them now? What will happen to the systems and strategies that he wanted to instill in them over the past months?

“The last time they succeeded by merit was 19 years ago. This is not an opportunity that might come any time soon. There certainly isn’t enough work on the ground, bottom-up to make sure.”

It is worth remembering at this point that only India qualified for this tournament by virtue of being the host. The last time they succeeded by merit was 19 years ago. This is not an opportunity that may come any time soon. There sure isn’t enough work on the ground and bottom up to make sure it works.

Which brings us back to the players.

“Destroyed”. “speechless”. “Heart broken”. “sad”. Of course they are.

What will be done about it?

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