FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup will (likely) return to India, what about a footballing system?

File photo: The Gateway of India illuminated with lights during the Official Emblem Launch of the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup. Aparna Jayakumar - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

The Women's U-17 World Cup, which India was due to host in October and was the biggest tangible potential loss in FIFA's ban, has been referred to several times during the Supreme Court hearings as a matter of "national pride".

As the issue is being sorted at the highest level, though, the real losers are the players on ground.

Yes, losing the U-17 World Cup hosting rights will be a big blow - India are after all only eligible to play the tournament by virtue of being hosts. But there is more to it than national pride: this is about football, and the women's game. And Indian women's football will not benefit much just from this one tournament; there is a lot more work, beyond the courtroom and constitution, to be done on it.

Women footballers have already suffered earlier this year, when India hosted another multi-nation tournament, the AFC Asian Cup. The senior national team had to leave the tournament due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the bubble in Mumbai, an administrative failure no matter how you paint it.

And now Gokulam Kerala FC are stuck in Tashkent, unable to play in the AFC Club Championship because the FIFA ban was announced when they were in transit.

Indeed, the FIFA ban is not even the first bit of bad news for the Indian U-17 women's team. Less than two months ago, the team's assistant coach Alex Ambrose was sacked on grounds of sexual misconduct. The team - comprising minors - continued playing matches in Europe.

What is the update on that case, which becomes a criminal matter under POCSO? No one has spoken.

Not the AIFF's Committee of Administrators, who told ESPN in early July only that criminal proceedings have begun.

Not the police personnel at the Dwarka Police Station in Delhi, where the case was supposedly registered. Their last communication to ESPN was that there is no FIR.

Not the 'eminent' former players or most of the current ones, none of whom have spoken out against this.

But that is the past. Does the future get any better?

Say the ban gets revoked as it likely will, with the assurances of the Government of India late on Sunday night and the Supreme Court order on Monday. India play the U-17 World Cup as hosts, get that exposure at home. What next?

When India hosted the FIFA U-17 Men's World Cup in 2017, the team had been together for some time already. They also played for the developmental side Indian Arrows in the I-League. Now, many of the first-team players in that tournament are regulars in the Indian Super League - India's top-flight club competition for men. Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem, Apuia, Boris Singh are all names from that World Cup.

Will that be the same path for the women? Short answer: No.

For starters, there was no developmental side for the women before this tournament. And the Indian Women's League (IWL), just five seasons old, is barely a month-long event and still lopsided due to the gulf in club investments and competition.

Admittedly, the AIFF started a women's Indian Arrows this year for the IWL. But that team was completely different to the U-17 team, and created with a specific goal in mind - the qualifiers for the AFC U20 Women's Asian Cup next year.

Other than that, the women's football structure in India is basic: play for your state (national championship) or a club (state leagues, qualify for IWL) and hope for a national call up. Even in this depleted calendar, players are made to pick matches for state and club due to clashing times. Just last year, the Indian national team couldn't play the national championship because they were preparing for the AFC Asian Cup. The IWL was also not held for two years due to the pandemic while the men's ISL was played within a bubble.

So where do the U-17 girls go after they play the FIFA World Cup at home? To the IWL, where the qualifiers are still haphazard and not all states have representation? To clubs that would scout them anyway even without the World Cup?

What is especially brutal is that they won't be the first U-17 batch that are left rudderless. The World Cup in India was to be initially held in 2020 but was cancelled due to the pandemic and a whole batch of those players were too old for the 2022 edition. Some, like Shilky Devi, made it to India's senior team but not everyone has had the same smooth path that their male counterparts did. Because India still doesn't have the grassroots system for women's football that they do for men.

This is the key point - there is a need to build a robust system, not just for one prestige tournament in the present but for the future. A system where one day India can qualify for the World Cup and not just play as hosts. A system that focusses on the ground as well while cleaning up the backroom of Indian football.

This is also what should not be forgotten during arguments in court over the importance of hosting the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup. It is not merely hosting a tournament that will bring in national pride, it is what the players do after that will be the true test. For that, we need to build a system just as emphatically as the powers that be are building their sides in court.