By Jyoti Burrett
I began my journey with the Indian women’s team in 2013. It was a huge year. The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Women’s Asian Cup was going to take place in 2014, and we hoped to get through the qualifiers that year, so that we could get into the Asian Cup. The top teams of the AFC Asian Cup go directly into the FIFA Women’s World Cup, so the stakes are quite high.
The Asian Cup is a window for India to play in the World Cup – that’s our only chance to qualify. So was India at the Asian Cup in 2014? Some background first.
In 2014 the frequency of the AFC was changed for the first time to come round every four years, to align with qualifications for the World Cup. Between the qualifiers for the AFC Asian Cup and the finals, it’s a long process. Group stage, then knockouts, where the last 8 teams have a shot at making it to the World Cup. Around 20 national teams (including countries all the way from Jordan and Iran to South Korea and Australia) played in the Asian Cup in 2014, fighting for five World Cup berths. Japan, South Korea, China and Australia qualified for the cup, and Thailand joined them after winning the play-off against Vietnam for fifth place.
Now a flashback to 2013. Before the qualifiers for the cup, we’d played a couple of friendly matches in Bahrain, which had gone well. For the actual qualifiers, we travelled to Palestine, where our group consisted of Chinese Taipei, Myanmar and Palestine. (Bahrain and Palestine each hosted the matches for their respective groups.) That was the first time I played in an international tournament – I was 23 at the time and was very new to football at that level. I didn’t quite realise at the time what it would mean for us. I had come on as a substitute in a couple of games, but my debut tournament meant the world.
I remember that there was so much security, and our buses would be accompanied by convoys of cars and police. It was summer so it was quite hot weather but we were being put up in a lovely hotel and had no security worries. Tuli Goon was our captain that year, and I played as a striker, although I’ve since gradually moved to playing right wing. We drew 1-1 against Palestine and lost 1-2 to Chinese Taipei. Myanmar was far superior in terms of sportsmanship – we lost to them 2-0. I remember being in awe of the pace Myanmar set during the game and thinking about how much faster we would need to play as a side. Overall the team played with spirit but fell short on co-ordination and speed.
Since my first international tournament in Palestine, I’ve played a couple of matches on a tour of China and at the SAFF Cup. I can say that as a national team, we lack consistency, because we don’t have the resources to train through the year. The teams that beat us – they train together 365 days a year. Their co-ordination and overall fitness is so apparent on the field.
India’s played in the AFC Asian Cup 8 times since it began in 1975, and we stood at the 2nd and 3rd places between 1979 and 1983. From 1997 to 2006, we played at the group stage, but never made it beyond that.
We tend to do very well – and consistently so – at the South Asian level. So far, India’s won all three South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Cups, in which Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Nepal participate. I think the best match I’ve ever played in has been at the SAFF Cup held in Pakistan in November 2014 – it felt like we were playing at home, and there was a huge crowd watching us. We never actually played against Pakistan in that tournament, but so many Pakistanis came out to support us, and I haven’t played in a stadium that full. We reached the finals against Nepal, we had a lot of backing. That was interesting and rather overwhelming to see.
But when go beyond our comfort zone of South Asia, when we play better teams like Myanmar, or South Korea, that’s where we fumble. We have quite a way to go in terms of Asian football.
We lack a national league in place – I think that’s the biggest issue that we’re facing right now. A 6-8 month league would guarantee you matches every week and allows you to build a level of consistency, because you keep playing. In our case at the moment, everyone meets two months before a tournament, we prepare, go for the tournament, and then that’s it – until the next tournament. It’s a very intermittent process. And if you’re not playing for your state or the national football team, opportunities to play football in India are quite limited – the big cities like Delhi and Mumbai, and the state of Goa, have clubs and leagues that happen over weekends for two or three weeks at the most. In Delhi, we have around 8 clubs (I play for one called Eves Football Club) and a league every year that goes on for two weeks. There are little set-ups in which you can continue training in Delhi – the clubs here have training centres, so at least there’s something, but it’s not enough. If you live in, say, Bihar, then your access to training is far more restricted.
Male footballers in India have the I-League – their version of the English Premier League. Ten clubs play in the league, and each team plays18 matches – that’s 90 matches in the season from January to May. That’s around 5 months of playing in a year, and national team footballers also have international duties to fulfill in addition (like the qualifiers to the men’s AFC Asian Cup, where the Indian men’s team faced their own woes, losing to Oman and Guam). Now, there’s the Indian Super League which started just last year, and goes on for around 2 months. The men have a lot more exposure, they can play for their states in regular national tournaments, and they have more foreign trips. They can be full-time footballers; Indian women don’t have that luxury.
My colleagues on the national team work in various government departments when there aren’t any tournaments. I work as a full-time personal trainer in an exclusive exercise studio in New Delhi. This helps me atleast keep my fitness and strength levels up through the year.
What makes me stay with football? Pure passion. Mia Hamm has always been a role model for playing such a dynamic part in changing the face of women’s football the world over by setting a new benchmark in the women’s game. She not only held the record for being the highest international goal-scorer in the history of the game (men and women) till 2013, before she was overtaken by fellow American Abby Wambach, but also became the first woman to be inducted in the Football Hall of Fame. Growing up, she was all I wanted to be. On the team itself, I look at senior players like Bembem Devi and Sasmita Malik and I see years and years of dedication to the game. Their consistency is inspiring. I play so I can maybe one day inspire other little girls like myself to follow a path less travelled, to do something purely out of passion. Yes, the road is tough and has an endless set of roadblocks, but the satisfaction of making it through despite all the odds can’t be paralleled.
As for this year’s World Cup, I’m looking forward to watching some high-quality football played at lightning pace. I’m backing the US to win, with much competition from defending champions Japan. And Megan Rapinoe from the US is my stand out player. I think she’s fantastic on the wing, and I have much to learn from her style of play.
Jyoti Burrett, a footballer and graduate in Sports and Health Science, plays for the Indian women’s national football team.