"We've got the opportunity to play 11 games against India's top footballers. The more you play, the better your game becomes. Maybe next year there will be more teams and opportunities for us to play, do well and improve our game." - Apurna Narzary, 18, Indian football player.
Competitive playing time in women's football in India is precious. Even the best, most experienced players in the country don't always have the opportunity. So a group of teenagers being given a chance to play 11 matches at the highest level of club football in the country - the Indian Women's League - is significant.
It's good news for women's football in India at a time when they desperately need it. The sport has suffered two cruel blows thanks to the pandemic, denying players their shot at history. The FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup in 2020 was cancelled due to the pandemic and, though it's been rescheduled to later this year, the age restrictions mean that many picked to play two years ago won't get a chance this time. In January, the Indian team was defaulted from the AFC Women's Asian Cup after they couldn't field a team due to a Covid outbreak inside the bubble. In both cases, India were the hosts which is what had ensured quality game time. In such a background, the inaugural women's Indian Arrows team offers a rare hope for such a future.
Apurna Narzary, an 18-year-old from Assam, plays for the Arrows in IWL - a first of its kind developmental, Under-20 team for women put together by the All India Football Federation. It's only been a month and the results are already there to see. The debutant team of teens is placed fourth on the points table after nine matches, and Narzary herself is joint-third on the league's goal-scoring charts with teammate Naorem Priyangka Devi.
But, it is their purpose more than their performance that is important in the context of Indian football's future.
Like the men's Arrows team that have been part of the I-League since their revival in 2017, the long-term goal is to give young footballers quality exposure, game time and prepare them for the future. However, there is also a specific goal: the qualifiers for the AFC U20 Women's Asian Cup next year. "We are preparing these girls for the international level, focusing on the Asian Cup which is going to be held in 2023," Arrows coach Suren Chettri tells ESPN on why the team was formed this year. "Firstly, make them play quality football, getting them into the IWL, getting match experience with senior level teams. That's good, at least we are getting 11 matches. "
Eleven matches at a stretch is a luxury that sometimes even international players don't get before big tournaments. Indeed, the ongoing IWL - the country's top-flight club competition - is back after a two-year gap and lasts for just 40 days. Still, a change in format means that now teams play 11 games instead of six like the earlier editions.
These 11 matches assume even more importance for young and upcoming players who have to fight a lot more for limited slots. Priyangka Devi, for example, has already played for the Indian senior national side. "Playing for the Indian women's national team is a unique experience... [But] It's vastly different playing for the national team and the Indian Arrows. For one thing, there is more competition because everyone wants to wear the blue jersey," she says. "Because there are fewer female footballers, we need to build our reserve team and nurture younger players in the long run."
That there is a plan is place to prepare the youngsters for an AFC event a year away is a sign of development. Just last year, the senior team were in long camps and played a bunch of friendlies to get ready for the AFC Women's Asian Cup, but the lack of continuous, competitive games showed in the only match they played against lower-ranked Iran. This experience, without the burden of expectation, is crucial for the juniors.
"We are not expected to become champions here but we wanted to see the development of the players. The team is developing and that is good for Indian football. They are improving, pushing hard, they are trying to give their best and that's what we look for as coaches," Chettri says.
How was the team formed?
The current Indian Arrows women's team is largely made up from players born in 2004 - who will be eligible for the U20 Women's Asian Cup qualifiers and main event in 2023. This includes the core of two former India teams with contradictory fortunes. Players from this year's SAFF U-18 Women's Championship winning team as well as players from the team that couldn't play the FIFA U-17 World Cup in India due to the pandemic.
Chettri, the assistant coach of the SAFF team, was asked by AIFF to take over this team for the IWL with the aim of seeing "progressive improvement in the team." Before he came into the picture, the roster was drawn up by the AIFF scouts and India's U-20 coach Alex Ambrose, who travelled to different parts of India to watch and draw up a list of players.
"During one of our games, our sir informed us that AIFF intends to form an Indian Arrows team for the women's division as well. So I began training for it because I did not want to miss out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Narzary says.
For this year, they faced the two-fold challenge of finding players not already affiliated to IWL Clubs and then short preparation time due to COVID, SAFF Championship and then exams. "Most of the girls are playing for the IWL clubs, there was a scarcity in between but we managed. We still need to look for good players, I think we will find it in the future," Chettri says.
The ideal end of any developmental team should be to have their players integrated into other clubs. This principle has worked well for the men's Arrows with players like Akash Mishra, Ashish Rai, Lalengmawia Ralte (Apuia) and Rahul KP becoming regulars for their respective Indian Super League clubs. For the women's Arrows, the short-term goal may be the continental event, but in the long run this should become a feeder system for the women's national and club teams. According to Chettri, that is the AIFF's plan. If the players want to leave for clubs, they won't be stopped "because they are earning money there."
"The men's Arrows have produced a lot of international players like Gurpreet, Lal, Kotal and that is the way we are thinking of the women's Arrows also. They become stars in the future, play football for the country and if possible they can go abroad and play for Europeans clubs. In the end, we are preparing the players for the future," he says.
The future, though, has always been uncertain for Indian women's football, as evidenced by the misfortune in major tournaments that had nothing to do with on-pitch performance. The ball will now be the federation's court to sustain this initiative and grow the culture of junior women's football independent of big tournaments and host nation privileges.
The long-term future of Indian women's football could well depend on how far these young Arrows shoot.