The Asian Cup was supposed to be, in Thomas Dennerby’s words, the point where women’s football would take off in India. But Covid-19 delivered a kick in the teeth. What couldn’t happen in January could next month when India hosts the under-17 women’s World Cup.
“A lot of young girls will get to know football is a really good sport; it’s the perfect sport for girls,” said Dennerby, the India under-17 coach. With the sagacity of one connected to the sport since 1977, as player and then coach including Sweden and Nigeria’s national women’s teams, Dennerby explained why. “A girl can have the same vision, the same reading of the game as a boy. Football is not that physical, the tackles allowed are shoulder tackles and girls can handle those. It is a technical sport, tests endurance and agility and girls can do all that as well as boys.”
In the women’s game, “there is less hitting” and people like that too, he said, referencing the European championships in July to make the point. “There is another thing good about football: if you are a little weaker but have a good day, you will have a chance.”
It’s what Augsburg told themselves before hosting Bayern Munich, Brentford against Manchester United and Rajasthan United when they met ATK Mohun Bagan. It is what Dennerby’s team will be telling itself when they meet USA in Bhubaneswar on October 11. Morocco on October 14. And Brazil three days later.
Dennerby said the girls have been working hard over the past six months, averaging 10-12 sessions per week. The team is playing at a higher tempo and last week won 4-0 against Odisha FC, who will play in the Indian Women’s League (IWL) this term.
If not at the level of the USA, “who are always strong and have highest fitness level”,
India are very close, said Dennerby. “What I have seen from videos of Brazil is that they are a good team with a lot of extremely good players upfront but a little weak in defence, so… Of course they are good teams but we are a good team too. And we are going to fight for our lives.”
Following the draw in June, Dennerby had said it would be sensational if India made the quarter-finals. Before the squad left for Spain on Saturday, the 63-year-old Swede said in a Zoom call from Bhubaneswar: “We are in a tough group. What we are talking about is how we can have our best game ever against USA. After that we will know a little bit better, our chances against Morocco.
“Should we lose the first game, if we handle the second game, there is still a chance going into the final game against Brazil. We will take it step by step.”
And they need to take their chances. It is an area that needed work, Dennerby said during a tour of Europe in the summer. “Since then, we have been working hard on the final pass, finishing from different angles, different distance, low crosses and high crosses. In the last few games we, maybe, utilised one out of three chances. (In the World Cup), maybe we will get two chances each half. To be sharp in those crucial moments is very important,” he said.
That Europe tour was also when assistant coach Alex Ambrose was sent home following allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour with a player. “That story is out of the squad a long time. The girls are super professional and we have had good help to deal with the situation,” said Dennerby.
Because it provides an opportunity for games, this trip is important. “Most of these girls don’t have the experience of playing important games,” he said. While on tour, Dennerby will name his World Cup squad on September 30. “We are travelling with 23 players and from them, 21 will be at the World Cup as we need to send the squad to FIFA on October 1.”
It would have been better if India didn’t travel so close to a competition—former India captain Bhaichung Bhutia has said as much—but Dennerby said they could do little if no team wanted to come. “They will come closer to the World Cup (starting on October 11) and FIFA rules prohibit games after October 5.”
If India exit from the group, their World Cup will be over on October 17. The level the girls are playing now, Dennerby said they could match any IWL team. “But the important thing is to keep on training after World Cup. If you go back to training two-three times a week, it will have a bad impact. We need to take care of these girls. The Indian Arrows (development team run by the Indian federation) also has a lot of good girls and we have good players in the senior team. These three generations together with a good long-term plan could take India to the women’s World Cup in 2027.”