The right time to simultaneously hold a women’s ISL?

Foreign investments, mergers and the inclusion of rich history within the Hero ISL suggests that the time is optimal for a women’s ISL.

Indian forward Kamala Devi Yumnam in action against Bangladesh’s Nargis Khatun during a SAFF Championship game

With the Indian Super League thriving and piquing a newfound interest for Indian football, it poses an obvious question: can a simultaneous women’s tournament function alongside? 

2019 was an encouraging year for Indian football. The men’s team were briefly ranked among the top 100 teams by FIFA. Domestically, the sixth edition of the Hero ISL scaled unprecedented viewership records across digital channels. Mind you, there was no global superstar who graced the league in 2019-20. This is proof that the league doesn’t need to bank on ageing overseas stars to grab eyeballs anymore.

ISL’s incremental improvement

Six years on from the inaugural season, clubs have established, acknowledged and rewarded their most loyal supporter groups. And I say loyal for a reason. Football fans no longer change their affinity for a club based on player arrivals or departures. A loyal ATK fan is likely to stick with his club even if star striker Roy Krishna decides it’s time to seek a new challenge at the end of the season.

Then off the pitch – mergers, strategic alliances and foreign investment gave the league a major shot in the arm. The City Football Group majority takeover of Mumbai City FC, the RB Leipzig – FC Goa strategic partnership, the moulding of two heavyweights to form ATK Mohun Bagan and the addition of their rivals East Bengal FC has given a 6 year old tournament, history to boast about.

The ISL recently superseded the I-League as India’s primary football league. Currently, the league topper qualifies to progress into the AFC Cup competition.

In the past, the league has managed to draw popular names such as Alessandro Del Piero, Luis Garcia, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg, Nicholas Anelka, Diego Forlan, Dimitar Berbatov and Tim Cahill. Hero Motocorp is a title sponsor for all of the major AIFF tournaments, which also includes the IWL. 

The league is co-promoted by IMG-Reliance and is heavily sponsored by Star India and Walt Disney. Industrialists and celebrities are team owners which has given the ISL the kind of backing it needs to grow. 

Women’s football on the up

It’s important to not overlook what the women achieved. The Blue Tigresses lifted the 2019 SAFF Cup in a series of dominating displays, marauding past sides with ease. In four games, they scored 18 goals and conceded just once.

The Indian women’s football team is on a 23 game unbeaten run in SAFF competition. They’ve won the competition 5 times.

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The women’s team are ranked 55th as of November 2020 in the FIFA Elo ratings. The men’s team, on the other hand have slipped to number 109. 

In 2019, attacking midfielder Ngangom Bala Devi hit the headlines when she signed for Scottish giants Rangers FC Women, on the back of scoring 52 goals in 58 appearances for the national team.

She followed her teammates Tanvie Hans (Tottenham Hotspur and Fulham FC) and goalkeeper Aditi Chauhan (West Ham United) in playing for a UK based club. The star of India’s 2019 SAFF Cup campaign – Dalima Chhiber (currently at Canadian side Manitoba Bisons) is another prominent player playing overseas.

Prior to sealing her move, Bala smashed 38 goals in two seasons of the IWL, sitting comfortably at the top of the goalscoring charts.

Revamp the IWL into Women’s ISL?

Seeing the strides taken by the women, the AIFF has now become proactive in gathering local teams to a centralized venue to play the Indian Women’s League (IWL). The league, since its inception in 2016 has been recognized as the top division in women’s professional football in India, replacing the Indian Women’s Football Championship where state teams were pitted against each other.

Adopting the same strategy that the ISL took during it’s initial few seasons of signing up international players for the league will help the local players raise their own game. Better infrastructure, wages, coverage, exposure and an increased level of competitiveness are only some of the benefits that a Women’s Indian Super League (Women’s ISL) would bring to women’s football in the country.

An ISL for the women will place Indian football on the upward trajectory that the AIFF had envisioned when the league began in 2014. The game is fast gaining mass appeal among the youth and girls are starting to take up the game early. The mushrooming popularity of European leagues in India has made girls across the country develop a keen interest for football.  

Sowing the seed of glory

India also witnessed its first-ever amateur women’s football league, held in Delhi in February 2020. Christened as the KICA Football League, it had six teams with seven players each. The league is an attempt to encourage more women to take up the sport professionally. The organisers managed to onboard sponsors like Raw Pressery Juices, The Butternut Co. and Nourish Organics.

India was all set to host the 2020 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in November, until the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the tournament to an unscheduled date. Having also successfully hosted the U-17 boys’ World Cup in 2017, the AIFF has displayed the willingness to popularise the game in India.

Now they must also subscribe to the idea of a full-fledged Women’s Indian Super League. 

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