Women's football is still a developing prospect in India, but India women's team right-winger Grace Dangmei has opined that the Indian Women's League (IWL), the country's premier women's club football tournament, is paramount to the development in terms of player exposure.
The IWL, which was introduced in late 2016 by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) following India's success in the 2014 SAFF Women's Championship, currently takes place across three weeks with around 12 participating teams. Teams are usually divided into two groups of six each, with the top two teams progressing to the semi-finals. It is considered to be the women's equivalent of the Indian Super League (ISL), which was started in 2014.
And Grace, who has played for KRYPSHA FC and Sethu FC and has also won the championship with the latter in 2019, stressed on the fact that the number of matches in a season should be increased, while also encouraging the inclusion of more clubs in a bid to expand the league.
"The number of matches in IWL should be increased. More clubs should be approached in women's football. In the past two years, women's football has gradually improved. There are even lots of tournaments conducted by AIFF. We are lucky enough to go and play," the 25-year-old said during a virtual interaction with Firstpost.
2022 will be a crucial year in women's football in India, with the country set to host the AFC Women's Asian Cup and the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup. This comes as a step up in Indian football's bid to gain global recognition, especially after having hosted the FIFA Men's U-17 World Cup in 2017.
On 4 May, in a major development for women's football, the AIFF confirmed that an Indian club would be taking part in the pilot tournament of the AFC Women's Club Championship, wherein eight clubs from different countries across Asia would be participating. India would be grouped with a club each from Iran, Jordan and Uzbekistan while the other group will consist of teams from Chinese Taipei, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.
While Grace admitted that IWL matches are becoming more competitive, the footballer from Manipur added that she hopes to see more women taking up football in India with the introduction of the AFC Women's Club Championship.
"The IWL matches are becoming more competitive. There's also a lot of foreign participation in the IWL. The AFC Women's Club Championship is also launching next year. This would help in improvement in women's football in India, and hopefully, there will be a lot more girls coming up in the near future," the defender-turned-striker added.
"Playing in IWL and gaining exposure, we had like got to play numbers of matches and rectify our mistakes in those matches. Even match-wise, we rectify mistakes. It helps me to rectify myself during practice," she continued.
Grace, who began her international career as a teenager in 2013, initially started as a defender during an U-14 inter-district tournament in Manipur with her Bishnupur-based team. But, she switched to being a forward later on, on the insistence of her coach Chaoba Devi.
She explained the reason behind the switch. "While I started playing football, my position was forward only but when I first entered the U-14 tournament, there were lots of forwards and there were no defenders for the team, so our coach told me that you should just try in this position. So, I just tried right-back. Then, when I met Chaoba ma'am during the U-16 national championships in Uttarakhand, she played me as a striker. From then onwards, she insisted me on playing in the attacking area. And since then, I have coped up quite well playing in the attacking area."
'Lots of improvements to be made'
Having lost all five matches they have played so far, the Indian women's football team's form this year is a cause of concern. Their heaviest defeat this year came to Russia, against whom they lost 0-8 in the Turkish Women's Cup, while narrowly collapsing to Ukraine (2-3 in Turkish Women's Cup) and Belarus (1-2 in a friendly).
With the 2022 AFC Women's Asian Cup coming up in India, it's a race against time in terms of India's on-field preparations for the event.
India are ranked 57th in the FIFA Women's World Ranking and Grace admitted that playing against higher-ranked teams was a learning process with a lot of scope for improvement.
"Playing with high-ranking teams, it's a learning process for us. There are lots of improvements to be made by myself as well as the entire team. We need to assess on which points we can improve ourselves against them by playing those higher-ranked teams," Grace added.
When asked about the team's two-month training camp in Goa last December where players assembled several days post the national lockdown, Grace said that only one aspect was in focus " to have a positive attitude.
"Yes, we had a training camp for two months in Goa. All the players assembled there and there was only one thing " to have a positive attitude whatever the situation was."
The experienced Bala Devi is currently plying trade with Rangers Women's football team in Scotland and when asked if stints playing abroad would develop Indian footballers, she simply replied, "Yeah. I think so, because there will be a lot of changes."