Creating A Level Playing Field For Mumbai's Female Footballers

Creating A Level Playing Field For Mumbai's Female Footballers

When we were younger, we believed sports to be an outlet where we felt simply unstoppable. We didn’t care whether the ball hit the bat, or just grazed past the goalpost –– we would play for the love of the sport, whichever it may be.

As we grew up, there seemed to be a great divide between how sports and the spaces allotted for them were meant to be perceived. Quite unpleasantly, it was based on gender. Boys were appreciated and encouraged into taking sports up seriously, while girls would be asked why they are out late.

While ‘boys will be boys’ with their outward attitude, girls are meant to be content indoors –– all under an overarching theme of ‘girls cannot do what boys do’.

Did the sport itself ever recognise gender?

Even past these remarks, there would be additional hurdles of “Don’t play like a girl!” hinting that somehow, how all women play the sport is inferior. These are notions that see no end –– where one stereotype ends, another begins. As a woman, one always has to work harder, act smarter and be louder, and the field of sports is no exception.

India is a rather cricket-worshipping country, but the passion for football cannot be missed. A sport tied to men in India, it is hard to find similar awe for the Indian women’s team that people hold for the Indian men’s football team. In fact, it would surprise people to know that since the inception of FIFA ranking, the men’s team’s average rank has been 131 while the women’s team’s has been 55.

India and its cities simply treat the sport differently as the gender shifts –– while grassroots change is required, the structure, opportunities, funding and more needs to change even at the top level. Essentially, it is the prejudice that needs to be done away with.

Homegrown spoke to noteworthy individuals involved in the football sphere in Mumbai, specifically the welfare of women’s football, to get to the bottom of this difference - why is it easy for men to prosper and revel in football glory, while women struggle to get to the same position?

There are three key barriers to entry for women footballers in the city:

I. Infrastructure

Image courtesy: Tanaz Mohammed

“Safe open places for the girls to play and train are a big challenge. Even though there are many astroturfs in the city the charges are exorbitant and very few girls can afford these,” said Anjali Shah, founder of the Premier India Football Academy (PIFA) Foundation and member of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) Indian Women’s Football Committee.

Washrooms, or the lack of them, in most grounds in the city, is a matter of grave concern. And even if they are present, they are far off from the ground and their filthiness makes them unusable. This is how Priya Mirchandani, a core member of the Indian Women’s Football Alliance, described the St. Xaviers Ground in Parel - “ The ground isn’t maintained. If you go to the toilets there, you’ll definitely go to the hospital. And that’s the men’s room. So just imagine the women’s”.

While the facilities are dire, Leah Poonawala, a 25-year-old player and active member of the football community in the city, believes accessibility is an equally pressing matter.

“It is not that it (grounds) isn’t available to them. It’s more about the access to it. Usually, these grounds are just taken over by the boys, as silly as it sounds. But they will take it over and they will dominate it. You can’t fight for it because people will feel uncomfortable and sometimes it will even be unsafe to fight for that ground. We don’t have any women’s football-specific grounds”, she said.

Poonawala sees fixed timings just for women perusal as a solution to this problem and believes it would encourage more women to come out and play.

“Gender disparity in football begins very early on in a girls life. To begin with, many girls don’t even have the opportunity to try out the sport till they are in their teens and exposed to the game by some other opportunity than the school team,” said Anjali Shah. “This is so because most schools do not have the facility to train girls or form girls teams separately”.

Infrastructure hampers participation in the academies, but it’s the coaching itself that affects retention.

“When it’s about females, it’s not just about coming and playing. Once they are actually in their teens, there is female health that comes in point. That’s the main turning point and why many, many young girls end up leaving the sport because they don’t know how to deal with female health and the game because there’s no awareness”, said Tanaz Mohammed, the grassroots development officer for Mumbai City FC.

Mohammed stressed on the point of up-gradation of coaches to tackle this issue. Through Mumbai City, she hosts workshops to educate coaches about female health. The coaches are taught how to deal with a situation when a girl is menstruating, how intense training sessions can be and how safe it should be. She spoke of how the aim shouldn’t be to just set up an academy, but an ecosystem.

“When we do activities at grassroots, our main focus is on how do we get girls on the ground”, said Mohammed. For the tournament organized for MCGM schools, a criterion was stipulated that for every five boys, there need to be three girls registered. Safeguards need to be put in for people looking for loopholes in the system.

II. Gender Bias

(L) Tanaz Mohammed ; (R) Leah Poonawala (image courtesy: SheThePeople)

“For the games – the players are registered, the girls are registered, but there is the smartness in sometimes when they need to win - people think boys need to play. So the boys play and the girls are sitting out. So there also we put a criterion as organisers that at least 2 girls need to be on the field if you are playing a five a side game. So, you know, we are teaching them as young as possible, to start respecting each other on the field. It’s very simple. What you teach the kid, the kid takes the learning ahead. If you teach them young to respect every gender, they will learn and take that forward,” she said.

But the truth of the matter is that gender still remains a significant barrier to entry. “When you are not given an equal opportunity to try out the sport along with myths like girls are not meant to play sports, this just reinforces the girls’ belief that maybe she should not be playing the sport in the first place,” said Anjali Shah.

Mohammed believes that the lack of role models in the sport is a contributing factor. “You see every child playing cricket out there because they have seen a Sachin or a Dhoni and they know that there is stardom, there is a lot of following. But, when it comes to football, I don’t think any female footballer has given an advertisement till now. Not on a big scale or it’s been a big deal and people will look up to that same person. So that’s a missing point - awareness and exposure is something missing,” she said.

Mohammed spoke of how most of the girls she works with don’t even know that India has a women’s football team. The marketing problem that plagues Indian Women Football is one of the driving reasons behind the IWFA (Indian Women’s Football Alliance) being set up - to bring more eyeballs to the sport so that administrators will be more accountable for their efforts to grow the game. The IWFA aims to have 10 million supporters of the Indian women’s game by 2026.

“The Administration is trying very hard to offer a high level of accountability however there is a big gap between the centre and state administration in terms of running the tournaments in a uniform manner. The rules of the tournament should be the same for teams participating at state and national level of the same tournament and if this is implemented we can expect a greater degree of accountability from all,” said Shah.

Poonawala cited Karnataka as an example of how a state administration can grow the game. The Karnataka administration reached an agreement with the Indian sports website, The Bridge, to broadcast all the Karnataka Women’s League games live on Facebook. Considering that IWL games struggle to find broadcasters, Karnataka’s strategy to attract eyeballs feels path-breaking.

The question remains as to why the Maharashtra association can’t do something similar for its female footballers. Poonawala has an answer: “Women’s football is not their aim, so why would they go out of their way and network and find a media outlet that can broadcast it. I just don’t think they’ve tried enough”.

III. Awareness (Or lack thereof)

Image courtesy: Tanaz Mohammed

The main concern women have raised with Mohammed in their interactions is parents reluctant for their daughters to pursue the sport and wanting them to focus on their education.

“I don’t think the parents are wrong, it’s just their concern. They have seen difficulties, they know how important it is to get a stable job to survive in this country, to have a proper earning so that you grow in the right direction. So that’s the reason parents put that pressure. So the only awareness that needs to be created is that the parents need to know that education and sport can go hand in hand”, she said.

Exposure is a key tenet of Mumbai City’s grassroots movement. Parent education and spreading awareness amongst the girls about the job opportunities that exist in the sport aside from playing is a crucial part of the club’s strategy to keep the girls in the game.

“Football as a sport is overall growing, in the country. Men have reached a level and women are also reaching a certain level. The only thing missing is exposure and awareness,” Mohammed said.

In the video Chhetri shared on Twitter in 2018, he said, “This is a very important time and juncture in Indian football and football in India needs you guys. So here I am requesting you – come and support us, in Mumbai and wherever we play”.

The same holds true for the Indian Women’s team. With the U-17 World Cup to be held in the country, now more so than ever.

Reporting for this story was supported by the Ministry of Mumbai’s Magic

Feature image courtesy: Tanaz Mohammed

Additional research & interviews conducted by Meghna Mathew

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