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At a recent football event, a senior player advised us against giving further publicity to Dolly Adhikary. “She’s been in the news," was the reason given.

Here, nevertheless, is Adhikary’s story. Last year, on 13 June, the 22-year-old footballer who represents Bengal was bitten by a poisonous snake outside her home in a district neighbouring Kolkata. The modest means of her mother, who works as domestic help, and bedridden father forced well-wishers to shift Adhikary to a government hospital in Kolkata and the state’s sports minister to chip in with funds. The local television channels followed; among the rare occasions in recent memory when a woman footballer made “news".

A free practice session organized by the Women Footballers Welfare Association at Maidan, Kolkata. Photo by Indranil Bhoumik/Mint.

The same year, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal—India’s premier football clubs, with narratives dating back 122 years and 91 years, respectively—elected a woman each to their highest decision-making executive committees for the first time. When East Bengal elected Molly Ganguly in February and Mohun Bagan, Sohini Mitra in November, the events went largely unnoticed.

Yet both Ganguly and Mitra have overcome century-old club norms that are horribly tilted against women. While the overtly “male chauvinist" character of Indian football is something both had to contend with, in the case of Mohun Bagan there was a “constitutional" ban on inducting women as members till 1995, according to the club’s general secretary, Anjan Mitra.

Some followers of club football in Kolkata have called their induction gimmicky, notional and nepotistic (both Mitra and Ganguly are known to have close relatives in influential club positions). But Arunava Chaudhuri, a blogger, keen observer of women’s football and founder of IndianFootball.com—a website dedicated to building an online database on Indian football—considers it “a significant" signpost for Indian women’s football. “Right now it’s a positive step, but only just. It remains to be seen how it is utilized," says Chaudhuri.

“For women’s football to come up, administrators of the All India Football Federation (Aiff) should perform a more proactive role," says Sohini Mitra. “Aiff must make it mandatory for national I-League playing clubs to have a women’s team and also organize more than one national-level tournament. My primary focus at Bagan will be on youth development and on getting women interested. A mother who is keen on football can only mean a newer generation of fans and players."

Bare facts

On the ground, the reality is not negotiated easily.

The Delhi University team. Photo by Priyanka Parashar/Mint.

So the 20-25 state women’s teams that have been participating in the national championship every year since the early 1990s, when the tournament began, can provide a misleading picture. Just eight-nine states are considered to be regular and serious about football. Though Tamil Nadu, Goa, Maharashtra and Kerala have begun to show better results in recent years, many teams are still put together hastily, some even including members who don’t actually play football. Across states, women still have to battle the odds to play the game, and earn a living.

Bengal—which has 13 regular women’s football clubs, and over 300 players registered with The Indian Football Association (IFA)—too has suffered setbacks. Both Mohun Bagan and East Bengal had fielded women’s club teams at the 2001 Calcutta Women’s Football League, but disbanded the sides a few seasons later, citing lack of funds, unavailability of practice fields and women’s dressing rooms as reasons. It created a void for players that India’s first regular women’s football league, started in 1993, has been unable to plug, says an official of the IFA, the league organizer and the game’s state-level governing body.

Anjan Mitra says the club plans to reintroduce the women’s team in the near future—a responsibility Mohun Bagan has, he says, as a national club. Gopal Ghosh, general manager (operations), East Bengal, believes that creating a women’s team “on an impulse" will be unsustainable. “We can attempt to make East Bengal at par with Barcelona FC," he says caustically, “but it will be self-defeatist. We first need to create the infrastructure backbone."

Promising stats

The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (Fifa) president Sepp Blatter had earlier commented that “the future of football is feminine"—but improving the lot of Indian women’s football will not be a goal that is easily achieved.

Eye on the goal: Shanti Mullick, the only woman Arjuna Award winner in football, at her Kolkata home . Photograph by Indranil Bhoumik/Mint.

Yet the Indian women’s team is ranked a respectable 53 in Fifa’s global rankings, and 11 in Asia. In comparison, the men’s team is ranked 158 globally and 29 in Asia—of course, the men’s team is in a bigger and more competitive pool.

“The rankings show how close the Indian women’s team is to securing an Olympic or World Cup berth, which are both distant dreams for the men. If the Aiff pays more attention to the women’s game, much can be achieved," argues Subhransu Roy, who is currently researching a doctoral thesis titled “Sociocultural History of Women’s Soccer in India" at Kolkata’s Rabindra Bharati University.

It has been a hard-fought comeback for the national side, delisted by Fifa in 2009 for not having played a match for more than 18 months. “After the break, when I took charge, it was hard work to motivate the girls," says Mohammad Shahid Jabbar, current coach of the Indian women’s team. “We have recently won a series against Bahrain, but the gap between the top-ranked Asian teams and India is enormous. A good grass-roots level programme is missing, and we need long-term planning."

“From being Asia’s No. 2 side, today we find ourselves out in the cold," says Goa-based former India player Yolanda D’Souza, whose hat-trick of goals against a visiting Swedish side in 1976 remains the only such feat by an Indian. The player-turned-painter, though, rates a goal scored off a reverse volley (the spectacular bicycle kick) during a Far East tour by the national team among her career highpoints: a colour-and-canvas artist betraying a preference for athletic artistry.

It is interesting to go through D’Souza’s career graph, highlighted as it is by standout performances from the 1970s and 1980s against international sides, unlike the minor state-level achievements many current players showcase. She explains: “The WFFI (Women’s Football Federation of India) organized more tournaments and international friendlies, which improved the game and provided exposure." This happened before, as D’Souza adds cryptically, “the men took over". Meaning, the control went out of the hands of the women-run WFFI, which came up in 1979 after a sustained initiative by Lucknow-based sports enthusiast, the late S.R. Zaidi. In the early 1990s, the WFFI handed over the reins of Indian women’s football to Aiff.

The risk: The worthy achievements of Indian women’s football may go into the deep freeze of nostalgia rather than act as platforms for take-off.

Where we were

Bridging the gap: Former player Kuntala Ghosh Dastidar. Photograph by Indranil Bhoumik/Mint.

Look at it this way: Back in 1982, the Indian women’s football team was the 12th best in the world.

“To put things into perspective, 15 years ago India lost by a slender 0-1 margin to Japan. At the 2011 Fifa Women’s World Cup, it was Japan who became world champions after defeating the US," says Chaudhuri. “To me, Indian women’s football is a case of where we were, where we could have been and where we are not."

Kuntala Ghosh Dastidar was there in the middle, and sometimes at the helm, of the Indian team, when many of the on-field triumphs were being scored in the 1970s-80s. She is a key person in Indian football’s feminine feats—the era Chaudhuri glorifies as the heights.

She is also a bridge to where much of Indian women’s football emerges from: the conservative, rigidly guarded, semi-urban, semi-rural societies steeped in traditional mindsets that discouraged women from playing a physical sport usually dominated by men. Only the rare courageous woman could escape the long-held value system, where superstitions festered and dowry deaths and witch-hunts were not uncommon.

Ghosh Dastidar remembers two instances vividly. In 1975, Ghosh Dastidar, then just a teenager, was travelling in the team bus for an exhibition match to Bolpur in Bengal’s Birbhum district—and not far from the free-thinking precincts of Tagore’s Santiniketan—when a mob of young men followed the bus on a particular stretch. The men noisily demanded that the girl footballers display their legs, bare beyond the football shorts.

She shudders as she recounts a second instance: In 1978, while playing a village match, a section of the crowd felt cheated at the sight of teenage women players with cropped hair and underdeveloped bodies. The mob had angrily surrounded the team’s temporary, thatched hut shelter, demanding proof of the players’ gender—with petrol and matchbox in hand. “We managed to escape around dawn," she says.

Over three decades later, women’s team-versus-women’s team “exhibition matches" are held all over Bengal with much greater regularity than a travelling circus or a nautch show. Hundreds of people pay 40-70 a ticket, but individual players earn no more than 400 a game. Players depend on the game for their living, and the highest earning among them is lucky to get an annual contract for 10,000 from their Calcutta Women’s Football League-playing club.

For reasons ranging from lust to awe, both men and women spectators continue to watch the girls play football in their shorts.

Short-changed

Bend it: Dulali Ghosh, who represented Bengal in the national league, says she is now considering training in physiotherapy to bolster her income. Photo by Indranil Bhoumik/Mint.

Nevertheless, gaining social acceptance is an off-field struggle that most aspiring women footballers have had to essay in Bengal, where in earlier centuries personalities like Rammohan Roy and Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar were the guiding lights for women’s education, empowerment and emancipation, and where men’s football gained popularity in the 1880s.

In Goalless: The Story of a Unique Footballing Nation (2006), sports scholars Boria Majumdar and Kausik Bandhyopadhyay chronicle the birth of women’s football in India. The book recounts the travails faced by Purna Ghosh, an early woman footballer and member of Kolkata’s National Youth Association, which was founded by the liberal reformist Brajaranjan Ray in the 1930s. When Purna Ghosh discarded the sari in favour of a costume that allowed easier movement on the field, she was roundly criticized, even though the Bengali newspaper Anandabazar Patrika showed its support by publishing photographs of her.

In the 1930s, other sari-wearing women footballers in Kolkata were reported to have been injured while playing.

Many years after she quit as a player, 50-year-old Ghosh Dastidar continues to sport a closely cropped hairstyle. She has maintained one since the day Mullick and her entire team walked into a saloon and demanded a “footballer’s cut", even though she risked a pasting from her father, the patriarch of a conservative home. “I would scale walls and escape from home to play. One day, on seeing my father in a match, I became nervous and accidentally kicked and injured a player," Ghosh Dastidar laughs.

This was in the mid-1970s, when young athletes responded to an advertisement for forming a women’s team by Arati Banerjee, the football-enthusiast wife of the legendary Indian player P.K. Banerjee. Over a hundred teenaged girls applied; and along with these came warnings from within the male football fraternity: An aggressive sport like football could create hormonal imbalances in women, affect child-bearing capabilities, interfere with menstrual cycles, and so on, remembers Mullick, one of the first applicants.

We met at the Calcutta Referees’ Association tent at Kolkata’s Maidan just days after Mullick returned as the triumphant Bengal side’s coach—the team had participated in an interstate tournament organized by Nalco in Orissa in late December. Bengal’s dominance in women’s football has been emphatically undermined by the Manipur team, which has won 16 of the 19 editions of the India Women’s Football Championship, with Bengal emerging champion twice and Orissa, a rising force, once.

Mullick’s expected exuberance is tempered by a nagging worry: Her teenaged daughter hasn’t been well. Having been associated with the game for over 35 years, it is not her daughter’s recently discovered interest in football that the mother wants to highlight. It is her daughter that the footballer wants to show off; for Mullick, her successful motherhood breaks yet another myth regarding the vision of physiological misfortune previously held out against women playing football.

Free in Manipur

Manipur (in green) playing Haryana at the national under-19 tournament in 2009. Photo by Hemant Padalkar/Hindustan.

In a state where women have spearheaded efforts ranging from organizing cooperative and individualistic economic models to social and protest activism, it is understandable when Roy says there is no difference between the sexes when it comes to participation, competition, support and organization in football. In a rare interview given to the popular website Kolkatafootball.com, Manipur’s Oinam Bembem Devi, winner of Aiff’s Woman Footballer of the Year for five years and the backbone of the national team, mentions a supportive mother behind her impressive career.

“We have a regular state league, state-level knockout and inter-district tournaments. In our cultural life, football is an important component," she says.

It is the kind of social safety net that has benefited Manipuri players like 22-year-old L. Naobi Chanu, who represented her state as a striker but now studies and plays for the Delhi University (DU) team. “As a youngster, I only needed to step out of my home and there would be boys and girls playing football together in the courtyard," says Chanu.

The DU women’s football team comprises students from colleges like Jesus and Mary, Janki Devi Memorial college, Indira Gandhi Institute of Physical Education and Sports Sciences, Kamala Nehru and Kalindi College. It is led by Uttarakhand native Nancy Gupta, who was inspired to take up football after watching British-Indian director Gurinder Chadha’s 2002 film, Bend It Like Beckham.

It’s not the only time the film is mentioned as an inspiration for a newer generation of girls to take to the field. The feel-good story of a London-based Sikh girl overcoming cultural odds to play football scores much higher in the football pop chart than the bittersweet view in Jafar Panahi’s Offside, of Iranian women fans caught outside a stadium during a scorching men’s game, or the fact that Bollywood actor Esha Deol was once considered to possess footballing potential.

An even spread

A practice session at the Modern High School for Girls, Kolkata. Photograph by Indranil Bhoumik/Mint.

“From Orissa, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh, many good tribal woman footballers are coming up. They have endurance, stamina and merely need to be moulded," says Aiff’s director (national teams) Subhankar Mukherjee. More international matches, including an international tournament later this year, training camps, a proposed academy and exposure tours are some of Aiff’s plans for women’s football. “We are also stressing on junior teams. The focus is on building a team for the future."

The example of Orissa— where an individual, Nandkishore Patnaik, has been able to build a football culture from scratch—is often cited as Indian women football’s most recent positive story. It is also a glowing citation to long-term vision; 18 years since the football coach formed the first girls’ team after “contributing from the salary" (primarily his own), the state team won the national championship in 2011. “Initially, I got laughed at. Now, women’s football is played in all districts and there are 300 registered players," says Patnaik.

“In every sport, you can make a career. It depends on determination and discipline," says Indrani Ghosh Sarkar, now in her 40s, negotiating the north Kolkata traffic as we talk. The determination and discipline required to drive through the narrow congested by-lanes has also guided her through a 25-year-plus football career. She currently teaches football, among other games, at the Calcutta International School. On her way home, she trains young boys, many from underprivileged backgrounds, as part of the Kolkata Goalz project supported by the EPL through the British Council—Mohun Bagan is one of the six clubs associated with the programme in India.

Sarkar has never been outside the football curve. She is suave, articulate, convent-educated, mother, wife, and drives her own car too—just some of the coordinates that go into forming the image of a conventionally successful careerist.

But Sarkar is just half the story of Indian women’s football. The other half belongs to a lady footballer who did not want to be named. Contacted on the phone, she refused to furnish details of an “exhibition match" in a Bengal village where she was to play without the knowledge of the club she is contracted to for the Calcutta League. Keeping the club out of the loop often means earning an additional 100. If the clubs get to know, it could lead to a show-cause notice or suspension.

Having spent weeks researching the article, I was eager for some on-field action. There was nothing happening, underlining a popular claim that Indian women’s football is more talk than play. I requested her for the match information, she baulked. I pleaded, she stonewalled. Eventually she threw reason. I withdrew.

“For you, it’s only an article. For me, it’s a livelihood."

Write to lounge@livemint.com

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