The India senior national women’s football team recently capped off their 2024 AFC Women’s Olympic Qualifying Round 1 in some style as they tore apart hosts Kyrgyzstan 9-0 on aggregate.
Following such a dominating display, I thought it’d be wise to look back on India’s journey before and during their current head coach, Thomas Dennerby.
The biggest turning point for women’s football in general came in 1971, when the Football Association revoked its ban on women’s football in Great Britain. However, the sport had lost most of its charm among women by then, having been inaccessible to them for nearly 50 years. This helps us understand that, for Indian female footballers, going professional in the 70s would have been quite the far cry.
Nevertheless, in 1975, the Women’s Football Federation of India (WFFI)—affiliated with neither FIFA nor the AFC at the time—formed its first Indian women’s national football team. Sushil Bhattacharya was given the reins to lead and coach this side. Interestingly, India did remarkably well with Bhattacharya at the helm, even managing to secure a runners-up position at the 1980 AFC Women’s Championship in Calicut. However, given the WFFI’s non-affiliation with FIFA and the AFC, the side failed to popularise the game in the country.
In 1981, India again won bronze in the AFC Women’s Championship after losing to eventual champions Thailand 1-0 in a closely-contested semi-final. The 80s, in many ways, can be considered the golden era of Indian women’s football. The decade also saw the likes of West Bengal, Manipur and Goa emerge as thriving hubs for women’s football in the country. These states, with their respective leagues and tournaments, offered players around 2,500–3,000 game minutes every season.
During this period, the Indian women’s football team was one of the Asian powerhouses. However, the start of the 90s marked the start of a slump that would go on to haunt women’s football in the country for decades to come.
From 1991 to 2010, Indian women’s football regressed year-on-year. West Bengal and Goa, once the primary production line for talent, stopped producing players. Historically, football has always been run on a tight budget in India, even more so when it comes to the development of women’s football in the country. A lack of training facilities and monetary resources saw the Indian women’s football team fall to an all-time low by 2010.
One must also not forget the Indian women’s team’s expulsion from the FIFA rankings in 2009 after being inactive for 18 months on the international scene. From 2010 to 2014, everything pertaining to professional women’s football stopped in India: be it national league football or state-organised unofficial leagues and tournaments. The senior national team were playing around 400–500 minutes at best, while select domestic cup competitions allowed women to play 500–600 minutes per season.
In 2014, led by Kaushal Das, promises were made by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) to improve the standard of Indian women’s football. Plans were made to set up academies and reintroduce league football. On the national front, in 2015, Sajid Dar was appointed as the Indian women’s team head coach.
Ultimately, little progress was made on and off the pitch. 2016 saw the introduction of the Indian Women’s League (IWL). However, played mostly as a knockout competition, the IWL failed to provide sufficient game time to the players. What started as a six-team league competition offered players roughly 800–1,000 minutes of game time on average.
By 2017, baby leagues and junior leagues started in different parts of India, but still not to the volume one would expect from a country soon to become the most populous country in the world. By this time, Sajid Dar’s tenure was also coming to an abrupt end due to a string of poor results as well as his team failing to show any signs of improving even their basic game intelligence required when competing against half-decent teams.
Following Dar’s departure, Maymol Rocky was brought in as the first female head coach of the senior national team. And while during her tenure India played 33 international matches, there was hardly any progress made on the field of play, with the players severely lacking tactical awareness. Rocky primarily depended on route-one football, paying little attention to the strength that the players possessed. While she did lead the team to win the 2019 SAFF Women’s Championship and a gold medal at the 2019 South Asian Games, it’s crucial to keep in mind that India were considered outright favourites against their tier-three South Asian opponents anyway.
Coming to the present day, the situation in the domestic circuit still hasn’t improved. Players are still getting 1,200–1,600 minutes of game time at best—close to 18 games per season—which is nowhere near good enough. Places like Bengaluru, Manipur, Kerala and Tamil Nadu have emerged as budding grounds for young female footballers in India in recent years.
Let’s take an example from last year’s FIFA U17 Women’s World Cup. India had the likes of the USA and Brazil in their group, who duly thrashed them 8-0 and 5-0, respectively. When paired up at the highest level with the very best, the Indian players were no match against the heavyweights in any aspect of the game. The USA and Brazil squads that played in the tournament averaged close to 18,000–20,000 minutes of game time before they set foot in India. The Indian footballers, on the other hand, came with an average game time of 2,000–2,500 minutes prior to playing the U17 World Cup.
Kids in these higher-ranked countries start attending academies or playing on the streets as early as when they are four or five years old, competing and learning through the various age groups before they finally make it. Girls in India, on the other hand, are exposed to a sport like football at the age of 12 or 13 — immediately putting them well behind in the development race when competing against the top nations.
In that regard, the appointment of Thomas Dennerby has been a breath of fresh air. The Swedish tactician has been able to implement his methods from day one, and the players look more improved every time they set foot on the pitch. Unlike his predecessors, Dennerby has prioritised build-up play from the back, which is one of the hardest ways to construct play given it requires the players to have higher technical levels, game intelligence, and a sharp and efficient decision-making process.
While this is something that cannot yet be associated with Indian footballers, it is something that we do have a huge potential in. If we look at the physical build of Indian players, the low centre of gravity and burst of pace at our disposal makes us conducive to attack as a passing unit, playing short balls in triangles and tight spaces to unlock the opposition’s defence. As stated above, what’s important to maintain such passages of play are game intelligence and quick, smart decision-making.
Game intelligence is the tactical understanding and positional awareness that a player has during the course of a 90-minute game, which we can see improving with the current set of players under Dennerby. Ever since he arrived in India in 2019, Dennerby has stressed in most of his press addresses that he’s working with the girls to improve their game intelligence and decision-making skills.
However, before doing that, the players also need to feel comfortable in their own skin. One of the main stumbling blocks for our players is their lack of exposure, which in turn affects their confidence on the field of play.
In one of his earlier interviews from 2021, when they lost to Tunisia, Dennerby stressed upon this: “We could see some parts of that [lack of self-belief] when we let in the goal [in the 1-0 loss] against Tunisia. The players got a little bit stressed. Of course, when you play football, you will not always be one goal up. When the other team scores first, you have to stay calm and follow your plan.”
He continued, “Maybe that is why we missed so many goal-scoring chances. That is one of the things we need to work on. We are trying to support the girls every day. They have to feel comfortable and understand that it is completely natural to miss a pass or a goal-scoring chance. Everybody does that. We are trying to boost them with self-confidence.”
But this is also where the likes of Manisha Kalyan, Bala Devi, Soumya Guguloth and others come into the picture. Unlike their male counterparts, the Indian women’s team possess a number of players plying their trade in foreign leagues.
Ngangom Bala Devi became the country’s first female footballer to sign a professional contract outside the country when she signed for Scottish giants Rangers in 2020. Goalkeeper Aditi Chauhan played a few seasons for West Ham United Ladies before returning to India. Dangmei Grace followed in the footsteps of Bembem Devi with a season in the Maldives before she signed a six-month contract with Uzbek club Nasaf. Similarly, Soumya Guguloth and Jyoti Chauhan also signed season-long contracts with the Croatian club Dinamo Zagreb.
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Deals like these not only bring personal glory to the players but also have a significant impact on the ecosystem of Indian women’s football. It gives a lot of exposure to the players and their former clubs, putting the newcomers in the spotlight as they climb through the ranks. Their exploits abroad encourage scouts from other countries to come in search of raw talents that they could shape and mould. Moreover, upon returning from their respective leagues, these players can pass on invaluable tactical knowledge to their national teammates and younger players, thereby assisting in their overall growth.
Looking at the current Indian footballing landscape, this seems like our best foot forward. The people behind the wheel are still the same, with the same ideologies and ways of working, eventually leading to stagnation and, to an extent, a slow-burning regression when compared to some of the top Asian countries. Our scouting network is in shambles, and people still follow age-old ways to identify talents, leading many to leave the sport altogether. The number of girls dropping out of football in the age group of 15–21 in India is alarming.
As a result, in order to improve the standards of women’s football in India, the AIFF first ought to change its decision-makers or give someone like Thomas Dennerby more authority in the decision-making process. The country needs someone experienced and with a hands-on and no-nonsense approach to steer the ship. India’s entire scouting network needs a revamp. If the country cannot provide game time and facilities required in the immediate future, it can start at least by identifying raw talents and sending them out to better academies.
The best example of this can be taken from the last remaining team in India’s U17 World Cup group, Morocco, who were made up of nearly 70% of players who were playing for clubs and academies in foreign countries. If we look at the bigger picture, the senior Moroccan men’s national team made it to the Semi-finals of the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup following this exact roadmap to some extent.
When you don’t have better infrastructure, you must at least try to create a pathway to one.