As a national team player, the Indian Olympic Association’s words cut me like knives

Certain decisions end up leaving us shocked. The most recent ones regarding the Indian football teams were one of them. The Indian Olympic Association (the IOA) has ended the dreams of not just the players but also the supporters of Indian football by announcing their decision not to send both the men’s (which is a U-23 age competition) and senior women’s team in the Asian Games. Bear in mind that this is a prestigious tournament that is held only once in every four years.

This decision hurts even more after hearing some of the comments by the IOA which came after their announcement – “The Indian football team does not have a realistic chance of winning a medal.”

As a national team player, these words cut me like knives. I realised our people, the people who have the decision making authority for sports in our country, people who we trusted in – do not have any faith in us.

Also Read: Indian football and the never-ending problems plaguing it

Last year was a tough year for me as my season with West Ham United FC ladies was cut short because of an ACL tear injury. This meant that I had to come back to India for surgery and a slow recuperation. But during this difficult period, my focus and primary motivation to get back into full fitness were to wear that India jersey again and represent my country in the Asian Games this year.

One full year of countless struggles, multiple rehab sessions, hundreds of physio and practice sessions – all of them just to fulfill that dream. It was not only my dream. The hopes of several girls that lived and breathed for a good many years, an idea that had grown to have something resembling hope attached to it; this dream was snatched away by someone sitting in a chair. They decided that none of us was good enough.

I take great pride in calling myself and introducing myself as the goalkeeper of the Indian National Team.

Along with all my colleagues, I too work extremely hard to keep fit to be able to give 100% for when we don the Indian jersey. If it were humanly possible, we would contribute more for the country on the football field, but a statement like this can belittle our efforts and make us question – why are we even putting in the effort because “realistically we don’t have the chance of winning a medal”.

Going by this logic Iceland and Panama (who qualified for the FIFA World Cup final for the first time) should not have come to Russia.

I am not going to question the approval of other sports because being an athlete I know what such opportunities mean to us. However, I firmly believe that the criterion for deciding the team’s participation is not thorough enough. How can we have a “one size fits all’ approach for Indian sports? Especially in the current climate when the scenario of sports in India is changing so dramatically?

How can the criteria of qualification for football, which is played by 209 countries in the world, be same as a sport like Sambo which sees participation by 89 countries in the world or Sepak Takrow which has an association in around 20 countries?

What message are you trying to convey to a young kid playing football?

In my opinion, I feel it was extremely important for the decision making authority to see the current scenario and the progress Indian football has made over the last four years since the last Asian Games before passing such a harsh judgement. Recent surveys have shown that viewership and participation have steadily increased across different sports and it showed that football was the second most watched sport in India after cricket. Here, I need only to allude to recent events surrounding the men’s team to establish the fact that, in addition to European football, Indian football has taken a tiny step towards becoming a permanent part of the public consciousness.

I have seen a tremendous development of football in India since I started playing the sport as a kid ten years ago. With the start of the ISL and development of the I-League over the years, kids and the parents have now started to see football as a profession and not just a hobby. Kids, both boys and girls, have started playing football in India.

I remember when I started out, my school did not even have a girls football team. There were no school football tournaments for girls and hardly any for boys. I did not even know that India had a national team for football. Look how things have changed over the years.

Our men’s national team saw their ranking progressing from 173 in 2015 to 97 in 2018 and women’s national team is now ranked 60th in the world according to the latest available data. Doesn’t that progress count for anything? Since India’s heydays on the global footballing stage, a lot of effort has gone into rebuilding and restructuring the beautiful sport and the way its played in the country. We are young, but we are taking strides. Our possibilities were limitless until this brutal decision brought us harshly back to the ground.

Anyone who follows sports or is watching the World Cup these days will agree that results are not always based on rankings.

Just look at the recent performances and results of the national team.

They were the winners of the Intercontinental Cup, they qualified for the AFC Cup after 18 years, the U-16 boys team is doing exceptionally well in the ongoing 4 Nations Cup with a tough fight against a solid DPR Korea team to get a 1-1 draw and of course the U-17 boys team impressing everyone during the U-17 World Cup with their resilience. They created history, and we applauded them for it.

I just hope and wish that, in future, the sports governing bodies work more closely rather than in isolation because it is ultimately the sport and the athletes who suffer from decisions like these. Get on the ground. Analyse performances objectively. Understand the global context instead of basing decisions on rankings.

Or we can continue to trust officials sitting in plush offices and deciding ‘a team is not good enough’ – I leave it to you to decide!