A smile creeps up on the faces of India’s women’s football team captain Ashalata Devi Loitongbam, and coach Thomas Dennerby, when asked about the prospect of travelling to Brazil. The team has been upbeat ever since they were drawn to play in a four-way tournament against the hosts, Chile and Venezuela. But it’s the opportunity of playing a team like the mighty Brazil where the rewards are vast. “We’ve idolised players like Marta, and we’re big fans of the team,” Ashalata says during the video conference, a day before the team departs for Manaus. It’s not just the fandom that has both captain and coach excited about the trip. This is a mere stepping stone – though an important and opportune one – to what lies ahead in January. For the first time since 2003, the women’s team will compete at the AFC Asian Cup (they qualified as hosts). And for the continental event on home soil, Dennerby is hoping to get his team as much game time for preparation as possible. A match against the World No 7 team no will give him a glimpse of where the team stands. “We know Brazil will test our defence more than any other team we have played before,” Dennerby says.
“They have quality attackers, their forwards are good with headers, and they’re all comfortable with the ball. They’re a well organised team. If we can handle Brazil, we can handle a lot of teams around the world. It’ll give us a good boost.”
This will be the second international tour for the women’s team since October, when they had travelled to the Middle East and Sweden for a series of friendlies to give the coach an idea of the progress the team has made. In the four matches they played in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, they won three (beating UAE 4-1, Bahrain 5-0 and Chinese Taipei 1-0) and lost 1-0 to Tunisia. The World No 57 ranked Indian team then went to Sweden to play two club teams, Hammarby and Djurgarden, losing both games 3-2 and 1-0 respectively. “Those were some good games but we definitely need to be more focused when we have chances in the opponent’s box,” says the Swedish coach, who in 2011 led his national team to a third-place finish at the Women’s World Cup. “When we’re at the Asian Cup, against the big teams, we’ll probably get just two chances per half and we need to take at least one of them. It’s not like we’re going to get 10 chances. At the same time, we need to defend together, be compact as a team and not let the opponent’s stretch us. “We need to improve the passing game, positioning and defending game. We’re still in progress and doing better. But the good thing for us is that it’s getting harder to find things we need to improve.” Next Thursday, Dennerby will get the luxurious litmus test in the form of Brazil. Thereon, they play World No 37 team Chile followed by No 56 Venezuela – both, according to Dennerby, technically sound teams with strong passing abilities (“but not the same speed and pace as Brazil”). Despite the tournament, the coach hasn’t allowed a tapering period for the players. “We’re working hard in the gym with the strength conditioning and running sessions. We want to hit our peak in January, not November,” he says.
Which is why the trip to Brazil is not about the results. “I’m not looking at the score. Only at how the players perform,” he explains. “If we lose 1-0, or win 1-0, that’s not the most important thing. What is important is to see if the players are doing the right things and putting in the work they’ve done in training. It’s still preparation time (for the Asian Cup) so I’m not worried about the results now.” A 40-hour journey to South America will be followed by just three days to recover before their first game on Thursday. Dennerby says when travelling to a country with a nine-hour time difference, a few more days to adjust would be ideal. But then he starts to smile again, matching Ashalata’s grin.