THERE'S SOMETHING CURIOUS HAPPENING with the Indian Women's Football Team and it's mostly flown under the radar so far.
Don't worry, it's not something bad. The last bad thing that plagued the Blue Tigresses was the issue with the player boycott and we thankfully appear to be past that; Bala Devi has re-joined the national camp and she's a regular starter as she should be.
This is more about a larger pattern of progression one can observe with the team over the last several months; like a story arc that's still being told.
Let's back up a few months. India went into the SAFF Women's Championship with an unusual amount of pressure hanging over them. The team had suffered some big losses at the Asian Women's Championship Qualifiers and COTIF Cup. Then their SAFF rivals Nepal had first held them to a draw at the Olympic Qualifiers first round, then outright beaten them in the inaugural Hero Gold Cup in Bhubaneswar. And now India were in Nepal, suddenly looking like an underdog at the tournament they had always won.
Throughout the competition, the inevitable clash between India and Nepal dominated the conversation. And once the long awaited match was set for the grand finale, India head coach Maymol Rocky was faced with the question that everyone wanted to ask but had to wait for the right moment.
A Bangladeshi journalist cut to the chase at the press conference asking if facing Nepal at the final signified a revenge match.
Maymol Rocky, the former national team right back who had taken over as head coach in 2017, surprised everyone by not ducking the question with a diplomatic reply. Instead, she fanned that narrative in an indirect way by telling the reporter if he wanted to see it like that, she was okay with it.
The statement added fuel to fire ahead of the match and when the Indian team walked out to play in the final they were facing a full house at Biratnagar; more than 10,000 vocal and hostile Nepali fans backing their own team and jeering India.
What happened after that is known to everyone. India beat Nepal 3-1, winning their 5th straight SAFF title, maintaining their status as the only champion and restoring order in the subcontinental hierarchy. Dalima Chibber's famous world class free kick conversion put a nice icing on the cake.
But amidst the euphoria, one important thing stood out about the match: Maymol Rocky didn't try to manage expectations. In fact she invited more pressure on the team, and the players responded well. Nepal had started the first half well, but India managed to turn it around to claim victory.
The Blue Tigresses beat Nepal again soon afterwards at the Olympic Qualifiers 2nd Round. And in the deciding game of the round, they faced hosts Myanmar.
Here, it helps to know what Myanmar were to the Indian Women's Football Team.
At the AFC qualifiers in 2013, Myanmar had beaten India 2-0. Two years later, India faced Myanmar again at the Olympic Qualifiers and lost 7-0. Then in 2018, Myanmar once again beat India 2-1 at the Olympic Quaifiers (first round). Then in February 2019, Myanmar faced India in the final of the Gold Cup, beat us 2-0 and took the inaugural trophy home.
Over the last 6 years, every time the Indian Women's Team had started to soar a little, Myanmar had been there to drag them down to earth. It was a threshold they just couldn't seem to cross.
In short, going by Maymol's characterisation of the SAFF final against Nepal, this was another occasion for revenge.
Facing Myanmar away from home was an intimidating prospect. But the Blue Tigeresses went into battle on 9th April all guns blazing. The defence had a hard time keeping out Myanmar led by their marquee striker Win Tun. But this time, unlike ever before, the Indian attack had equal impact on Myanmar.
India took the lead through Sandhiya, and Win Tun found the equalizer. Then Win Tun put Myanmar ahead with a second goal but Sanju found the net and brought India back into the game. In the second half Ratanbala got us a lead, but Win Tun got her hat-trick and made things level again. Towards the end, Sanju and Dangmei Grace had two great opportunities to seal the win for India but Myanmar keeper May Zin Nwe pulled off great saves to deny them.
It was an action-packed 3-3 draw; the first time India had managed to avoid defeat against Myanmar. They had tied with Myanmar in points but the hosts progressed to the third round by superior goal difference; India were knocked out despite being unbeaten in the round; their best performance in the Olympic Qualifiers till date. Not quite a full revenge, but the game could have been won with a bit of extra luck. The underlining takeaway was that the Indian women's team was capable of beating Myanmar on their day. Given their history with Myanmar, that was a giant leap forward for the Blue Tigresses.
From Nepal, a short time challenge, this Indian team, which is the youngest squad we've seen in a while, graduated to rising to the level of a long term foe.
That was back in April, and that little unbeaten run in the Olympic Qualifiers 2nd Round put a bow on a reasonably productive 2018-19 season for the Blue Tigresses. They had had their highs and lows; lost the Gold Cup, won the SAFF Women's Championship and set a personal performance record at the Olympic Qualifiers.
The question was, how to carry on that momentum? Targeting Nepal and then Myanmar hinted at a possible course of action to undertake; but it wasn't clear if the staff and the AIFF were looking at it that way.
The team took a break for the summer. The players plied their trade at the Indian Women's League. A bunch of new players emerged at the domestic scene including Papki Devi, Daya Devi, Renu who earned a call-up to the national team. Bala Devi, who was among the players who boycotted national duty over an alleged practice of preferential treatment by the coaches, also returned to the fold, marking an end to the internal conflict that had loomed over the Blue Tigresses over the last few months. Aditi Chauhan, who missed Olympic Qualifiers 2nd Round due to an injury, was recovering while Dalima Chibber was ready to start a new chapter of her life in Canada that could improve her as a player.
The squad re-assembled in July, playing in the COTIF Cup. Last year, India had struggled at the tournament, losing all their matches. This time, they faired better, beating Bolivia B, Mauritiana and a couple of club sides, while losing yto Villareal U20 and Spain U20, finishing third in the tournament. The team was looking good; the young defence put together by Maymol Rocky and Co was gaining more experience and the striking department appeared even more diverse than before; with at least 7 active scorers in the team.
To cap off the month of August, the team needed a bit more game time. That meant organizing friendlies. And it was here that AIFF had an opportunity to carry on the momentum of progression they had found, when they beat Nepal and drew Myanmar in their own soil. The opponent they would pick would speak volumes about their long term plan for the team.
They went with Uzbekistan. Two quick friendlies in Tashkent. The timing and the place could not have been better.
Uzbekistan's relationship with the Indian Women's Team closely resembled that with Myanmar. The two teams go long back, and most of the time they had met, it was a case of trying and failing for India.
In 1994 Uzbekistan came to India to play in the Jayalalitha Cup and beat us 2-0. Next year they beat us again at AFC Women's Championship.
India got a 6-0 win over them at the 2003 Asian Women's Championship but that match did not take place under normal circumstances. The tournament had to be postponed for a couple of months due to a SARS virus outbreak in host country Thailand. Still, multiple countries including Kazakhstan, Indonesia and Nepal pulled out of the tournament out of health concerns. Many of the other teams that showed up were missing key players. Uzkebistan had sent a team that ended up losing all three of their matches in the group stage, conceding 21 goals and scoring only two. The weakened Uzbekistan was the only team that India managed to beat.
The next time they met was in 2011, at the first round of the Olympic Qualifiers. And it was a feisty affair.
Placed in Group B together along with Bangladesh, the two teams faced off in Dhaka on 22nd March in a game that would determine who would progress to the next round.
In a tense, cagey encounter, India drew the first blood about 70 minutes in, when Thongam Tababi Devi found the net. But Uzbekistan got even 10 minutes later through Kamola Riskieva. The match ended 1-1.
This left both India and Uzbekistan tied at the points table, both with 4 points, +3 goal difference (having beaten Bangladesh 3-0) and a draw against each other. So, according to tournament rules, they faced each other again, at 7 am next morning, just over 12 hours after their previous match had ended.
The highly guarded staring contest continued for most of the first half and India scored first again, with Oinam Bembem Devi scoring just before half-time. But in the second half, a different story played out.
The Indian players gassed out. They were not used to playing two matches half a day apart, against a physically fit and strong side like Uzbekistan. They had kept up with the intensity for 135 minutes, but in the second half of that second match, they could no longer fight through it.
Just before the hour mark, Elena Lagtukina broke past the Indian defence. Then she did it again 3 minutes later. This broke the Indian defence's spirit and the floodgate opened. India lost the match 5-1, Uzbekistan progressed to the next round.
Uzbekistan and India met again in 2017 at the Asian Women's Championship Qualifiers in North Korea. Again, it was a case of the Indian defence's utter submission. India lost the game 7-1; it's best not to re-live the details.
3 months after this match, Maymol Rocky came on board, and soon it became clear that AIFF wanted the Blue Tigresses to have something of a fresh start, with a lot of chances being given to younger players.
India faced Uzbekistan again, earlier this year, at the Turkish Women's Cup. And compared to the previous two encounters, a very different kind of game took place.
Uzbekistan scored within 4 minutes. And for a moment it looked like they were going to hand another whitewash loss to India. But the Indian defence, soldiered by Dalima Chibber, Sweety Devi and Jabamani Tudu, held on. Uzbekistan went all out to increase the tally but the defenders matched them physically and unlike some of the previous encounters, did not gas out as the match progressed.
In fact, in the last few minutes of the game, after sitting back and defending hard for a long time and only getting a sniff at the Uzbekistan goal with hopeful long rangers, India finally seemed to have shifted the momentum. The Uzbekistan team had slowed down and India started finding pockets in their defence to exploit. They got two chances in the last few minutes; but Anju Tamang and Dalima Chibber failed to convert them.
India lost, but the performance was a revelation. Uzbekistan were still a team that constantly made them uncomfortable. But instead of falling apart, the Blue Tigresses were able to evolve and adapt. It was a prospect worth exploring further.
Which brought us to last week's friendly matches. Just like Nepal and Myanmar, it was India going up against a team that they have had trouble beating, in their own backyard.
The first match took place at the Yakkasary Stadium on 29th August, and it was a scary throwback to old, bad memories.
India started well. Bala Devi got a goal 5 minutes in. But that was it. About half an hour in, Uzbekistan got their equalizer, and dominated the proceedings from that point on. It was a 5-1 loss for the Blue Tigresses and the Indian defence looked completely out of place.
Going into the second match, the concern was palpable. AIFF had taken a chance by booking friendlies with Uzbekistan. They were not only meant to serve as practice opportunities but also as a measure for progress the team had achieved over the last few months. A setback meant they would have to go back to drawing board and start over, especially if the target is to get their FIFA rank up and put on a stronger performance at the Women's Asian Cup Qualifiers come 2021.
Despite the heavy loss, Maymol Rocky chose to keep faith on mostly the same starters, switching only Jabamani Tudu with Ranjana Chanu in the first eleven.
Whatever the problem the Indians experienced in the first match, whether it was lingering travel fatigue or a case of nerves; it was nowhere to be seen.
The way the match unfolded mirrored the match in February. The action was back and forth, both sides looking for chances to attack, while remaining cautious and measured about their backline.
Chances were created; Uzbekistan probably would have taken the lead had Aditi Chauhan not pulled off a couple of world class saves. The scoreline, however, remained 0-0.
The deadlock was broken early in the second half. Sandhiya Ranganathan found the net, and the complexion of the match changed.
Uzbekistan fired all cylinders to get back in the game and it became a game of endurance for the Indian defence. The stress test lasted almost 40 minutes, and for the most part, the Blue Tigresses kept their shape, denying the home side any opportunity to get even.
But towards the end of the match, Uzbekistan earned a penalty, and equalized through that. It was 1-1 with 12 minutes left on the clock.
India almost got their second. Daya Devi, who had come on to replace Sandhiya, was using her fresh legs to frustrate a fatigued Uzbekistan defence. Towards the end she had a great opportunity to win the match in the last minutes but the close range chance went wide.
The match was a draw. It wasn't exactly the huge moment of vindication that the Indian team had hoped for. But it was an informative result, just like the away draw against Myanmar. In both cases, the Indian Women's Team showed they were capable of going up against two teams ranked significantly higher than them, learning from past mistakes, adapting, improving and getting a favourable result. With a bit of luck, India could have beaten both Myanmar and Uzbekistan. And given the heavy losses those two teams have handed us in the past, that's a definite sign of hope.
The Indian women have slowly climbed up the FIFA ranking ladder in the past. They are 57th now, and displayed capability of taking on teams ranked 46th and 44th (Myanmar and Uzbekistan). And AIFF have in their hands a proven formula of exposing the players to a slow-burn of increasingly competitive opponents and incrementally achieving improvement as they build up towards 2021.
Which leads to the question - who should be next? Which opponent can provide the Blue Tigresses with the next step in the ladder they're painstakingly climbing over the last couple of years?
It's just an opinion, but looking at past results, current form and the rankings, the ideal opponent seem to be Chinese Taipei.
They are ranked 40th in the world. Just a few steps above Uzbekistan. And they share a long history with the Indian Women's Team as well.
In 1998 at Asian Games they handed India one of their worst results in the modern era; a 13-1 drubbing. In 1999 at the Asian Women's Championship they beat India again; by a 2-0 margin this time. In 2001, they met again, and this time the result was a 5-0 loss for India.
In 2005, they met again, twice. This time the results were more competitive; India lost 2-1 and 1-0. Fast forward to 2013, they met in the Women's Asian Cup Qualifiers; and it was a close contest again. But India lost, 2-1.
Just like Myanmar and Uzbekistan, Chinese Taipei are a team that India have tried hard to beat in the past, gotten close but failed multiple times.
In terms of recent form, too, They fit the bill of a formidable opponent. They have won 9 out of their last 11 matches, and lost only 1, against China (ranked 16th in the world).
In the Olympic Qualifiers 2nd Round, they ran through Philippines, Iran and Palestine to qualify for the third round, which will be played in February 2020.
So will it be very hard for AIFF to convince Chinese Taipei to play a couple of friendlies against India? The Blue Tigresses have a recent record that backs up their credentials; they went unbeaten in the Olympic Qualifiers 2nd Round and gave a hard time to Myanmar and Uzbekistan who are ranked close to Chinese Taipei.
So maybe an opponent like India is just what Chinese Taipei Football Association will be looking for around December-January as they prepare for the next round of Olympic Qualifiers. The situation is mutually beneficial.
Whether the Federations like the idea or come to an agreement remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure; the Indian Women's Team have a strong wind on their sail now, and a setting sights on a particular opponent as a measuring stick for their improvement is an opportunity to strengthen it.