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Demand the Impossible! - The Journey of the First Women’s Football Team of IIT Delhi

By Sukriti Sharma, PhD final year student from Dept. of HUSS, IIT Delhi

History on the touchlines

On the margins of the football ground of IIT Delhi, history has quietly been in the making. For the past four years, women students have been practicing a sport on a small ground away from the floodlights of not only the main ground where the men’s team practices, but also from the dominant ethos at IIT Delhi where only the ‘Inter-IIT tag’ decides whether a sport is worth playing.

Can a sport, a club or any creative pursuit on campus be imagined as open to anyone, free from the barriers of CGPAs or merit? With this question, a few women built the first ever women’s football team at IIT Delhi.

What is being created on the margins, outside the touchlines, is not only the women’s football team but also a different attitude. In contrast to an attitude of exclusivity that pervades across sports teams or cultural clubs, the women’s football team has been experimenting with an attitude that welcomes anyone who has a desire to learn and the discipline to train rigorously. Here, it is not pre-given skills but rather pure desire that is considered as merit. Yearly trials for the team are organized where everyone who appears is selected, and every practice session becomes a test of one’s grit to practice the sport. Instead of believing that ‘cut-throat’ competition is the only incentive for growth or excellence, merit here is considered a common project of the team. We feel meritorious when a beginner who diligently perfects her skills exclaims at the end of a practice session “I am no longer scared of the ball!” 

The Build Up: From one to twenty four

In an extraordinary feat, the recent Sportech included women’s football for the first time, where not just one but two teams (a total of 24 women) representing IIT Delhi played. IIT Delhi became one of the few IITs to include women’s football in its sports fest. 

We started in 2021 with only one or two women trying to courageously play in a field full of well-trained boys, waiting hesitantly for the ball to be passed to them or anxious to not lose it once passed, lest their mistake be seen as a confirmation of stereotypes that abound against women. But slowly more women joined, a third one, a fourth one and so on, and we started practicing together. In the absence of a coach, those among us who were trained earlier shared their skills with the new players.

Refusing to Give Up

In conditions where a sport is not officially recognized in the institute, it is almost a Sisyphean task to build a team from scratch. Various incentives like awards, scholarships, sports kits provided by BSA as well as the opportunity to participate in BSA elections require a sport to be part of Inter-IIT tournaments. This disproportionately affects women’s participation in sports that do not fulfill such a condition, as was also highlighted by BSP in its 2022 report ‘Dearth, Distance and Discouragement: Behind the Underwhelming Participation of Women in Sports at IITD’. The difficulties are further intensified by the prevalent societal conception that sports like football, hockey and cricket are men’s sports, reflected in the sheer absence of women’s teams in these sports across most IITs.

In such an environment, we were often met with pessimism that our attempt like all past ones would fizzle out too. We often thought of giving up. But every second, third, fourth player who appeared for practice changed what had till then seemed to be our Sisyphean destiny. In two years, we were able to achieve what seemed impossible: a 24 plus women’s football team, a coach and official recognition by BSA.

Inventing a new strategy

Over these four years, the football field has provided us a ground not just for building a team but also for testing out or experimenting with this new attitude of non-exclusivity and camaraderie that goes even beyond the game to our everyday life on campus. What we thought was missing on campus, we tried to build on the football field. We tried to combat isolation and lack of community spirit on campus with a sense of camaraderie in our practice sessions. We also struggled to make the deeply entrenched senior-junior hierarchies on campus matter less in the team. The hierarchical culture of calling seniors Sir or Ma’am is completely antithetical to any idea of a student community and particularly to team spirit and yet it pervades all sports and clubs. But imagine how absurd it would be if back in the PSG days, Mbappe or Neymar would call out “Messi sir!” every time they would coordinate (or perhaps not coordinate!) an attack or Alexia Putellas be called ‘Ma’am!’ by her Spanish teammates during a Women’s FIFA match! Such a culture in a team also legitimizes unfair practices of making juniors do tedious work related to the sport like bringing the equipment to practice, organizing sessions and so on.

“That’s how winning is done!”

Such attempts to build a new attitude sometimes created spontaneous moments of camaraderie that were unprecedented for us. Take the General Championship (GC) for instance, where inter-hostel rivalries become intense and even violent among men and women hostel teams alike. Just last year, such a rivalry reached a peak when the men’s teams made obscene gestures and indulged in retaliatory violence on the football ground. Such gestures and violence are not uncommon on the world stage too, where gestures are made not only to symbolize a victory but a certain phallic pride of the victor, gestures by Emiliano Martinez after he received the Golden Glove in 2022 being a case in point.  

And yet, just a few weeks ago, on 19th March, Kailash-Himadri showed us an alternate and radically different attitude that perhaps the Martinez-Shivalik-Virtual trio could take a few lessons from. Soon after Himadri beat Kailash in penalties, and celebrations started for the winning team, the entire Himadri team approached the distraught Kailash players and the Himadri goalkeeper picked up the Kailash captain to cheer and celebrate Kailash’s efforts. This unexpected gesture of sportsmanship momentarily interrupting the otherwise intense rivalry and anti-cheering was extraordinary and a lesson in how winning is done. Indeed, winning or losing matters in sports, rivalries matter, such is the necessary nature of any sport, but to momentarily interrupt such norms with gestures of camaraderie makes the game even more beautiful.

Towards a new team spirit on campus

The struggle for equality, for recognition, for sharing the main ground with the men’s team, for inclusion in the Inter-IIT tournaments continues. But what we have learnt in these last four years shall hopefully always stay with us; that new communities can be created beyond the barriers created by a culture of merit and a society of hierarchies.

Today, amidst numerous student suicides on campus, student voices are speaking out against the dominant ethos on campus that plays a major role in increasing isolation, exclusion and unhappiness in the student community. Against such a dominant ethos, we must perhaps demand that the sites of happiness and creativity: dance, music, sports, theater, astronomy, science itself be open to anyone in conditions of encouragement and camaraderie. The culture of merit and the society of hierarchies would declare this impossible. Yet, it is for us to invent this new spirit on campus. And here perhaps, the women’s football team is showing the way.

Caption: Photos from Sportech 2024, where two teams from IIT Delhi participated in the first ever women’s football segment. There are many more women students not present here but continue to play and remain an integral part of the team. Special thanks to our coaches Hari Sir, Akanksha Ma’am, Akshay Sir and Ashish Sir and the groundsmen at IIT Delhi ground. 

Caption: Kailash and Himadri teams during the Inter Hostel General Championship 2023 where women’s football was included for the first time in an inter hostel event. 

Disclaimer: The viewpoints and opinions expressed in this article solely belong to the author and do not reflect the viewpoints of BSP, IIT Delhi.

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