It had all started from a Brazilian corner.
Indumathi was first to the second ball. She nudged it around a couple of tackles to Anju Tamang. Instead of hoofing it clear, Anju chipped the ball to Pyari Xaxa up near the halfway line. A cushioned header and the ball was at the feet of Manisha Kalyan down the left flank. She received it almost exactly on the halfway line, with three defenders in front of her, and two chasing. She was too fast for those behind her, and with those in front attempting to cover Xaxa’s sprint through the middle, Manisha was allowed to run, and run, and then run some more, till she stopped just inside the Brazilian box. Where she took a touch to steady herself, and another to belt the ball low and hard into the far bottom corner. Calm, co-ordinated, ruthless… a proper counter attack. David had just bloodied Goliath’s nose.
Now, make no mistake, India v Brazil in women’s football is just that, David v Goliath. As unreliable as FIFA rankings are, the 50-rank difference between the two is a fair indicator of the gap between the two teams.
It’s not just the rankings – think of how much game time their players get.
Brazil have just finished a 16-team, four-month women’s league. Corinthians, their champions, played 21 times across the league stage and the two-legged playoffs. They also played five games en-route to winning the continental cup, the Copa Libertadores Feminina. Many of their stars play in big leagues internationally.
India’s champions from last year, Gokulam Kerala, have played 3 games (in the AFC Women’s Championship) in twenty months. Extend that to thirty months, and you could add seven more games in the 10-team women’s league. And that’s because they are champions. The only Indian playing outside the nation is sat injured at home.
This match really was not supposed to be 1-1 after eight minutes of play. And yet it was.
After a shock-and-awe concession in the first minute, India arranged themselves into a disciplined 4-4-1-1, moving as a unit, closing gaps and not allowing Brazil to play their natural game. They passed it well when they got the ball, countered at every chance, their pace and blunt directness causing problems where none had been expected. Aditi Chauhan, in goal, recovered well from the early lapse to make a couple of good saves. Kamala Devi, back after an absence of three years, dropped into the trequartista role, providing a stable link between central midfield, the wings, and Xaxa up top. It was like she’d never been away.
For half-an-hour, the nose remained bloodied. Then Brazil scored again just before halftime.
After the break, they switched up a couple of gears and absolutely ran away with it. India, so full of running and intensity and concentration in the first 45, simply couldn’t keep up. By the end of the ninety, the score read 6-1.
Thomas Dennerby, the head coach, had said that he would never send out a team to do anything but win, but he probably expected this. His appointment itself had felt rushed, seemingly done more out of convenience than anything else. ‘Hey, he’s here coaching the U17 kids, they don’t need coaching anymore, he’s got a very good footballing brain, let’s take him on-board’. Till he has to go coach the next batch of U17 kids, that is.
The short-cut hasn’t started too badly. Dennerby’s influence can already be seen on the team, the performances and the results from the friendlies so far have been promising. Just like the first half of this match. There’s discipline to the defense and an eager directness to the attacks. The players have gone on record speaking about the individual attention they are getting, training schedules customised to their needs whether technical or physical. By all accounts, it has been a good experience for all concerned.
Ahead of their trip to South America, Dangmei Grace had told ESPN, “We don’t really look at things like [what makes for a successful trip]. Success and failure is all a part of everyday life, as it is with football. It’s what you make of those outcomes that define you. Whatever matches we may be playing right now, our collective ultimate goal is the Asian Cup.”‘
She would go on to say, “[The matches against Brazil, Chile, Venezuela and the friendlies they’d played earlier] are all matches where we are looking to work on different aspects of our game, and executing those is what we are focusing on. Results are important, but that will be during the Asian Cup. Right now, it’s all about the process, as we prepare for [the Asian Cup].”
Grace is right, of course. From her point-of-view, from the team’s point-of-view, from the manager’s point-of-view, that’s absolutely the best way to look at this. With just about a couple of months to go, they don’t have a choice — everything has to be geared for the big tournament.
What happened in the second half against Brazil isn’t really their fault. They simply haven’t played enough football.
Dennerby’s plan may well work for the Asian Cup, the players could hit the peak of their conditioning just in time for the tournament proper, and they could very possibly have a good run through it. The coach and the players are good enough to do it.
It solves nothing in the long-term.
The AIFF have conducted one ISL, one I-League, two I-League qualifiers and have started another ISL in the past year alone. They have done it well, in extremely difficult times. No one can question their organisational ability.
If India’s women are to ever stand a chance against the Goliaths of the footballing world, the AIFF need to find the will to match that ability.