It was a balmy Sunday morning in November. The sun was shining, burning off the haze of dawn. As the city slowly stirred awake, soccer fields at a suburban school were alive with the bustling to-and-fro of kids as young as 5 years old. Hundreds of children, including a smattering of girls, arrived to mark the start of a new youth soccer league.
But this wasn't just another quiet suburban town in the United States; this was New Delhi, where soccer is far from becoming a national sport. In India, most open fields are overrun with boys wielding cricket bats and lobbing cricket balls. In India, a youth soccer clinic is a remarkable phenomenon.
The All India Football Federation (AIFF) is working to make scenes like the one in New Delhi more common across the country. AIFF has set an ambitious goal for India's national teams to qualify in future FIFA World Cups, both men and women.
Though the road ahead will not be easy, it is a road worth traveling.
"In the last five to six years, I have observed that [soccer] is growing in every nation, including in Asia," said Indu Choudhary, the AIFF's women's football coordinator who oversees all of India's national team programs.
In India, cricket is king, but sport enthusiasts are slowly embracing other options like soccer and basketball, an interest that has been fueled in large part by local and international sponsorships.
The NBA has partnered with the Basketball Federation of India to launch a multicity, community-based, youth basketball league. Nike, too, has sponsored youth soccer leagues and tournaments throughout India, most notably the Manchester United Premiere Cup for 16 of India's U-15 teams. Also, through a partnership with Conscient Football, soccer powerhouse FC Barcelona has recently entered India with a commitment to train 10,000 Indian youth over the next three years. Argentina and Venezuela's soccer teams played a FIFA friendly match lastfall in Kolkata, India with over 80,000 fans on hand to witness Lionel Messi in action.
These sponsors have been clamoring to take advantage of India's emerging economy and a market of 1.5 billion people moving into the middle class. Clients now see a thriving sports nation that has yet to reach its potential.
"Cricket fever is now quite low, and we have a good audience and passionate players who think that [soccer] is a game to play," Choudhary said.
Fortunately, India women's soccer has a foundation, albeit a bumpy one, to build on.
Although it mostly has been played recreationally, women's soccer has been a part of India's more progressive social narrative for generations. As far back as the late 1970s, young girls freely and publicly participated in the sport. At the national level, AIFF has supported a women's national team since the 1990s, far earlier than many of its regional neighbors.
They were building on their successes and were serious contenders in South Asia. This momentum came to a halt in 2007, however, when their ranking was pulled after failing to consistently participate in FIFA-sanctioned tournaments.
"I found out that our team wasn't prepared well for the tournaments, and that is why we did not participate," Choudhary said.
After the women's national team had been on a two-year hiatus, AIFF took action in late 2009. Urged by FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), AIFF was told to uphold a confederation mandate, similar to Title IX, and resurrect the women's national team. Today, India's women's national team ranks 53rd in FIFA and 11th in the AFC and is steadily moving up the rankings.
Under Choudhary's leadership, AIFF's women's program has continued to grow and fields national teams in the U-14, U-16, U-19 and senior categories. In total, the AIFF has 3,000 nationally ranked, registered players under its women's program, and those numbers continue to grow.
Unlike many of its neighbors, India is not, on the whole, hampered by conservative culture that secludes its women and girls from society. But it is still not common to see young girls playing sports on the open fields, which has more to do with the value parents place on sports. Parents often question the value of sports for their children, particularly for their daughters, who must also attend to daily home chores. With the challenge of academic rigors to focus on, sport takes a back seat.
"Few parents think there are good opportunities in sports," said Suganya (who prefers to go by her first name), a 22-year-old striker with the national team. "They have to understand that playing is something that can become a professional career."
Choudhary believes "parents need to understand that if their kids are passionate about something, they need to encourage them and support them."
Despite the challenges, AIFF's efforts to revive women's soccer have come at the right time. The women's game is growing internationally, and India's soccer revolution has been fueled by support from inside its borders and power players from outside, as well.
U.S. Soccer Federation president and Indian national Sunil Gulati has provided technical assistance for the program and believes the future of women's soccer is bright.
"When countries are starting programs, you can get lopsided results on the field and there's no way around that," Gulati said. "As countries around the world put more resources into women's soccer and as they get players who are participating more than just newcomers, that will start to change, and can only be good for the international game."
Just this past month, Joanna Lohman, a former member of the U.S. women's national team, and Lianne Sanderson, a former England national team player, held a weeklong clinic in India. They trained the women's national team and local girls' soccer teams through their newly formed JoLi Academy, whose mission is to "evolve women's soccer around the world" and build "confidence, drive, ambition, determination, focus, and leadership."
"Just to experience the lives of these young women and to live in the village was so eye-opening for me," Lohman said. "It presented us with challenges that we never even knew existed, and it really pushed us to think differently, to adapt to their culture and to try to make an impact on these young women."
Their experience in India also provided them with a long-term plan to help AIFF achieve its goal of sending a team to a FIFA Women's World Cup. Lohman and Sanderson hope to forge a partnership with the AIFF to provide technical assistance for the women's national team over the next two to five years.
"As soon as we left our camp, we were very emotional," Sanderson said. "We almost felt like there was unfinished business. With this opportunity that has become available to maybe work with AIFF again and continue to do so in the future, [it] is something we're really excited about, but, at the same time, we want it to be a long-term vision we are working toward."
Indian players enjoyed the opportunity to connect with these world-class players, but there will soon be a need for something beyond that.
"When Joanna or Lianne go out and they've got the experience they have at high levels having played in professional leagues and national teams, that helps because it serves as a great model," said Gulati. Though, he added, "it doesn't work in the same way as a role model that is going to be an Indian female player in the future."
In a country that loves its idols, once India women's soccer produces an all-star of its own, the masses will be sure to follow.