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The WIFA issue: A colossal mess at the heart of women’s football

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9 mins read
The WIFA issue - A colossal mess at the heart of women's football.jpeg

In August 2022, Anjali Shah, Director of Premier India Football Academy’s (PIFA), one of India’s leading football academies based out of Mumbai, wrote to Souter Vaz, the Honorary Secretary of the Western Indian Football Association (WIFA), the governing body for football in Maharashtra, about a scheduling issue which had led to the governing body suspending multiple players of the PIFA women’s team. 

Now, a scheduling issue might not be as important as one would think, but this one goes far deeper than just being a scheduling issue. In this article, we take a deeper look at some of the prevalent issues in women’s football, especially with regards to WIFA. 

On August 27, Shah wrote to Vaz informing him that the PIFA players would not be able to attend the next two practice sessions as the Indian Women’s League (IWL) qualifier matches and the state camp for the Maharashtra team, which had multiple players from PIFA, were clashing. For those who don’t know, the WIFA Women’s Football League is the top tier league of women’s football in Maharashtra and also acts as a qualifier to the Indian Women’s League (IWL), the country’s top tier professional football league for women. 

By the end of August, the WIFA Women’s Football League season was at its business end, and with PIFA at the top of the table, they were looking forward to the IWL Playoff rounds as well. The schedule initially had stated that PIFA had the IWL qualifying Round 1 on September 29 and October 3, while the National Games schedule was as follows — September 30 against Odisha, October 2 against Gujarat, and October 4 against Assam; the players were expected to play five games in a span of six days and also attend practice in-between. 

One couldn’t even attribute this to two different organisers scheduling the dates, as both tournament dates were scheduled by WIFA. Another point to note here before we proceed is the fact that the PIFA squad had played a gruelling WIFA Women’s Football League 2021-22 season, which they had won, earning their promotion to the IWL. 

PIFA has stated that, between October 2021 and August 2022, the team played around 40 matches. These girls initially were training for the IWL Qualifiers, which was held between November 2021 and February 2022. Post qualification, there was another training camp in March, and the IWL final round got underway in April 2022 and lasted till May 2022. In June, the girls resumed training once again for the upcoming season, which got underway from August 2022. 

To add to this, some of the players were also university students, girls who weren’t from Mumbai and had to travel to the city for practice sessions, girls who had to not only balance between their college life and football practices but also young girls who weren’t being able to spend time with their own families, not to mention the mental fatigue experienced by the players, especially young players, who were being put to the grind almost every day without proper rest. 

Several PIFA players wrote to the WIFA Secretary on September 2, informing that they wouldn’t be able to attend practices due to the aforementioned reasons. While WIFA arranged the schedule in such a manner that the National Games camp, the WIFA Women’s Football League matches and the IWL qualifiers clashed, other governing bodies such as the All Manipur Football Association (AMFA) postponed the 2022 A Shanta Meetei Memorial 13th Senior Women’s Football League so that its state players could prepare for the National Games

After the issue was brought to notice, a revised IWL fixture list was circulated which changed the Playoff matches’ dates to September 25 and 28. Despite there being a change of dates in the schedule, WIFA informed that practice sessions would continue on all days, including those when the girls were playing games in the league as well. 

The response from the WIFA Secretary was that, if the players didn’t attend practice sessions, irrespective of whether they had a match the day before or after, they would be “scratched from the National Games camp selections for Maharashtra”.

Let’s look at the matter a little more figuratively with the numbers: 

  • WIFA released the first fixture list of the IWL qualifiers on July 29, which stated the qualifiers would be held between August 10 and September 29. 
  • On August 9, WIFA announced that the selection and coaching camp for the National Games would start from August 12. 
  • On August 13, it was announced that the training camp for the National Games would get underway from August 29 and last till September 17, with the National Games getting underway from September 29. 
  • PIFA played a WIFA Women’s Football League game on August 26 against Footie First, which they won 1-0. Following their game, WIFA announced that the state camp instead of starting on August 29 would start on August 26. The PIFA players were asked to stay back for the camp, right after they had just finished a league game. 
  • PIFA requested WIFA to provide leeway for their players in the state camp as they had another WIFA Women’s Football League game on August 29, because of which it would not be logical to practice on August 27 and 28. Their next game was on August 29, against Mumbai Knights, which ended in a goalless draw. 
  • The same day, WIFA Secretary Souter Vaz informed PIFA Director Anjali Shah that players who did not attend the state camp on August 27 and 28 would be banned. 

With attending practice sessions on the same day of having league games being physically impossible, on September 12, WIFA mailed PIFA informing them that five of their players — Kushi Chourasia, Akanksha Kandalkar, Bhagyashree Dalvi, Payal Bansude and Trupti Deep — were suspended for six months and would not be able to participate or play in any league or tournaments which were conducted by the State and District, neither would they be allowed to compete in the IWL qualifier rounds. WIFA stated that the players were suspended for failing to show up to the state camps. 

WIFA in its letter stated that “if the players did not want to attend the camp, they should have informed us before we selected the 30 players for the final camp of Maharashtra Women’s team.” In a different letter dated August 30, WIFA wrote to Shah stating that it was her who did not let the players attend Maharashtra’s camp and alleged that “it was the team management who instigated the players not to attend the coaching camp.” It is to be noted here that it was the players who wrote to WIFA explaining why they couldn’t attend the practice sessions. They had mentioned medical reasons and clashes with educational commitments as to why it wasn’t possible for them to attend practice sessions, apart from the fact that these practice sessions were being held by WIFA on the same day as PIFA athletes had league matches. Shah had also written to WIFA stating that the players would be up for attending practice sessions and various camps and training sessions once the IWL qualifier rounds were over while also requesting the association to uplift the ban or postpone the league qualifiers so that the team had their players available for those matches. 

When PIFA questioned WIFA about the legality and explanation behind the suspensions, WIFA wrote back to PIFA on September 20, stating: “There is no specific rule regarding disciplinary action for such offences in the constitution of WIFA. Hence we are unable to provide the same.” 

SportsKhabri reached out to Souter Vaz via email to get his comments on this matter but received no response. 

The suspension was eventually lifted on October 14, but the duration of the suspension meant that the athletes weren’t able to participate in the National Games for their state and neither were they able to take part in the qualifiers of the IWL. 

Speaking about the scheduling of the season and its side-effects, Anjali Shah, Director of PIFA, commented:

“This has been the toughest season for PIFA so far, we were used to playing against the opposition along with the federation but this time they hit below the belt by expecting us to play without our top 5 players. In the end who did the ban benefit? My players lost out on the opportunity to play both the IWL qualifiers and the state team, the state team lost all the matches and precious time was lost for all.” 

Rules don’t apply:

If you thought the scheduling factors and illogical suspensions were the only issues in WIFA, you would be mistaken. With regards to PIFA and WIFA, there are a host of other issues which contribute to the stagnancy of growth in Indian women’s football. 

Following discussions with the Director of PIFA, SportsKhabri learnt about other instances of disrespect towards women in the sport. 

Anjali Shah also spoke about WIFA’s general attitude towards the women’s game from personal experience, stating:

“WIFA has absolutely very little respect for football as a whole. What development activities have they ever done? All they do is coach education programs which is more of a business in my view. In my case there have been numerous occasions where the secretary has gotten extremely disrespectful with me for calling out the shortcomings of the association. Also WIFA does not have a women’s committee at all.”

On August 29, PIFA wrote to WIFA once again, demanding justification for having a team owner present in the Technical Area during a game against Mumbai Knights, a game which was held the same morning. The team owner was present inside the Technical Area in the capacity of an Assistant Coach. The WIFA rules state that, during its Women’s Football League games, each team may have their Head Coach, Team Manager and Physiotherapist on the substitute’s bench during the games, and if the Head Coach is not present, the Assistant Coach shall be allowed to be on the bench. These rules and regulations were also sent to all clubs in the Women’s Football League by WIFA, but on August 29, the day PIFA brought the issue to WIFA, the governing body sent an amendment in which the Assistant Coach or Goalkeeping coach were also allowed in the Technical Area. WIFA also mentioned that, during the games, if the Physiotherapist is not present, then only the Manager and the Coach should be allowed to sit in the Technical Area. When PIFA questioned the WIFA about the credentials of the team owner who was present as an Assistant Coach during the mentioned game, and the fact that he wasn’t a licensed professional, WIFA stated in its reply that “there is no criteria for an Assistant Coach to be licensed”. This is the second instance of a state’s governing body mentioning that it doesn’t have any rules or regulations to fall back on for certain matters. 

When PIFA’s personnel were summoned in front of a Disciplinary Committee with regards to their protest, in a surprising turn of events, only PIFA members were present at the hearing, while no one from Mumbai Knights was present, against whom the case was lodged. 

The WIFA Women’s League 2022-23, which recently concluded, with Mumbai Knights being crowned as champions, also had its fair share of controversy. While Mumbai Knights and PIFA were two of the stronger teams in the League, one of PIFA’s games (a 16-0 win against Lawless United) was not counted in the WIFA Women’s League 2022-23 table. Prior to the PIFA and Lawless United match on September 17, PIFA were on second spot in the league table with 19 points from seven games, while Mumbai Knights were the table toppers with 22 points from eight games. After the PIFA-Lawless United game, the table remained the same, with PIFA remaining on 19 points from seven games with their latest win against Lawless United not being counted. Additionally, WIFA had also been made aware about the quality of refereeing in the WIFA Women’s Football League games. PIFA had sent a letter to the body requesting for a referee assessor during the matches.

One can look at it as poor governance, a type of vendetta against a certain team, or simply an ego issue; what is for certain is that, unless WIFA mends its ways, the women’s game in Maharashtra will continue to suffer. 

Speaking about the steps needed to grow the women’s game, Anjali Shah said:

“There should be equal representation in the executive committee of WIFA for women. When we have more women we will see progress not only in the women’s game but also in overall development of football in Maharashtra.Safeguarding our female players from both physical and mental abuse should be our top priority.”

We have just taken a deeper look at one of the many issues which plague women’s football in India. Some of these issues are:

  • The senior women’s team’s growth has been hindered by the lack of exposure against international teams. Since 2021, the India senior women’s national team have played five international friendlies and one unofficial friendly. Aside from these games, they have taken part in two tournaments over the course of two years. 
  • We also had the U17 Women’s World Cup which was held in India, where there were multiple issues as well, such as the hosts facing a delayed arrival of their boots consignment ahead of their first game, with the shoes arriving just before kick-off.
  • The general norm in today’s world has almost all professional sports teams being appointed a sports psychologist. The Indian U17 team, which took part in the FIFA U17 Women’s World Cup recently, didn’t have one.

It is easy to look at the results on paper and criticise a team’s performances, but the issues lie deep in the system, and unless such issues are addressed and fixed, we will continue to let our girls down, who are so passionately following their dreams and representing their country.

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