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SUNBURNT TERRACE - It's not just the system that failed women footballers. We, the fans, failed them too


HERE'S ONE THING we, as Indian football fans, need to know.

The fact that women footballers don't feel protected in this country is our failure.

The Federation, state associations and other organizations in Indian football are as incompetent and/or corrupt as we, the fans, allow them to be.

If you talk to those who are within India football, there were rumours and verbal allegations against Alex Ambrose going back at least 4 years. And nothing was done. No one wanted to be the first one to speak up. That included the players. Why? Because they knew that if they did say something, they would not be protected by anyone.

Why did they think that? What gave them the impression that they were alone, without any support structure to protect them from exploitation and predatory behaviour?

That would be us, the fans.

We tell women footballers they are alone every time they walk out to play in an empty stadium. We tell women footballers they are alone when even the senior Indian women's national team doesn't get its matches on TV. It's not just AIFF's fault; if TV networks knew there was fan interest they'd rush to pick up those rights.

The path of a woman who wants to make a career in Indian football is lonely. Ask any female footballer; there's a good chance they were told by their family not to pursue football because it was seen as a men's sport.

There's a good chance they had no support structure from the government that other budding athletes, especially boys, enjoy. There aren't many football scholarships in India; and it's worse when it comes to women's football. Maybe the top players of a typical state (Not talking about the handful of football-crazy ones) get some token scholarship, but the numbers are very low. 

Forget youth footballers. Even at the professional level women players earn very little. A typical Indian Women's League team - which is the highest level of club football for women in India - spends less on the whole team's budget than ISL clubs spend on an average male player's salary. Which is why even if a girl's parents are pragmatic and want to support their daughter's ambitions, they say things like, what's your future in this sport? Will it even feed you?

The lucky few who get a job on sports quota often get consumed by it. They don't live the life a professional player should. They shuttle around playing the Nationals and IWL including the qualifiers which are all rather short. And they do it all knowing no one's watching. The fans don't care. They will lift their trophies, collect their medals in front of an empty gallery and 500 people watching on a live stream.

And the vast majority of the season will be spent practicing on their own, away from a proper team setup, waiting for the next tournament's fixture to come out. 

That's why, even when they play for India, they don't expect any support. Hundreds of fans travelled all the way to UAE to see India play in AFC Asian Cup in 2019. But when the Indian women's team defended their SAFF title in Biratnarar, Nepal, a town just 7-8 kilometers away from the Indian border, where fans could reach by train and even without a passport, no one showed up. When the Blue Tigresses ran laps with the Indian flag after winning the trophy for their country, they didn't get to see a single tri-colour in the stands greeting them back.

That's what a 10 year old girl who wants to become the next Bembem Devi prepares herself for; to play alone. The life she dreams of isn't like that of a boy who wants to become the next Sunil Chhetri, with packed stands, 90 minute chants and thunderous viking claps.

So if no one's there to even share her joy, is it any wonder that she wouldn't trust anyone with her worst traumas?

The AIFF cares less about Indian women's football than it does for Indian men's football. That's obvious and systemic. But have we, the fans, ever given the Federation a reason to change itself?

Contrast what's happening with Alex Ambrose with what happened between Wriddhiman Saha and Boria Majumdar. Saha spoke up against bullying; and we expect that from him. He is a mature adult, he knows bad behaviour when he sees it. But the reason he spoke up publicly is that he knew there would be people out there who would stand up for him. He would not be shamed for it, people would take it seriously and ask questions on his behalf.

Has any female footballer in India ever received that same assurance from the fans? Forget the junior players, even our stars in the Blue Tigresses senior roster don't feel the larger fanbase would stand up for them if they spoke up about something they experienced. Why is that?

Are we, as fans, just here to be entertained? Is our fandom limited to cheering when a goal is scored? Or did we make a commitment to this sport?

Why don't we protect the women footballers the same way we protect our clubs?  Why don't we support a team in IWL? Why don't we show up to watch state or national leagues when they happen in our cities? Why don't we let our players know that we have their backs?

Those who committed an offence must be held responsible. And if anyone within the AIFF is found to have ignored previous complaints, they should be held responsible for failing in their job too. But it should not take someone being caught red-handed by the staff for the system to spring into action.

Hiring a woman safety officer is a start. Filing an FIR is a start. Conducting an investigation is a start. But if AIFF is to be held to account, they must know that failure to act on their part will be inevitably met with unrelenting backlash from the very source of their commercial health: the fans. They must see there's real consequences for failing to protect our players and if it happens again, there will be a bigger wave of anger to deal with.

We need to raise our voices. They must hear us from the stands, whether it's at a national team game, or an ISL or I-League game. The AIFF must hear us, the sponsors of the sport must hear us, and the aspiring footballers who are watching must also hear us. We the fans must tell the players we are here for them, that they don't need to be afraid. We must tell them, they're not psychics, they won't know it if we don't show it.

And we must show up to watch women's football. We must see it as a responsibility. The women who play football in India know they won't be flooded with cash or celebrity-type glamour. They know they're going to make a tiny fraction of what their male counterparts make. If they want money and fame, there are several better and easier career paths, including other sports, that they can pursue. But they chose football because they love the sport. Dedicating one's life to the football without expecting much in return, that's the purest form of love there is. They are the best fans that Indian football has; they are one of us.

When someone takes advantage of their love for the sport to violate them, that's an attack on the very core of what makes us fans.

So if we don't protect our players with everything we've got, we should not call ourselves fans. We don't deserve it. And we don't deserve them, those who are the best of us, who spend their lives trying to contribute to the sport, and get abused for it.

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