India's women footballers are in despair and face an uncertain future after a FIFA ban saw the country stripped of a major international tournament, leaving its best team in limbo.
The sport's world governing body this week suspended the national federation "due to undue influence from third parties" — member associations need to be free from legal and political interference.
The All India Football Federation (AIFF), however, has been plagued by governance issues.
The indefinite suspension had an immediate impact on Indian football at all levels — men and women, from professional down to the grassroots.
The under-17 Women's World Cup, set to begin in India on October 11, will not currently take place as planned. It was supposed to be the first FIFA tournament in the country since 2017.
The punishment also coincided with the Asian Football Confederation's Women's Club Championship in Uzbekistan, where Indian league winners Gokulam Kerala FC were chasing a maiden title.
They only learned about the FIFA suspension when their flight landed in Tashkent — they have been barred from competing.
"We have put in so much hard work for the last two months and all the players were preparing to win the AFC trophy as well," club captain Ashalati Devi — also skipper of the national women's team — told India News.
"It remains our dream to lift the title,'' said Devi, describing the team as "distressed by all this".
Gokulam put out a statement lamenting that it had been stopped from playing through "no fault of ours".
"Our women's team is the pride and jewel for all [of] us, and these players have proved themselves to be the best in India," it said.
Lavanya Verma, who was short-listed for the U17 World Cup squad, blamed the AIFF for this.
"The main reason for the ban is due to poor governance, but us innocent players have to suffer," the 17-year-old said.
"It is sad to see that the players are working so hard and this is what they get … I still hope the World Cup happens in India, but if it doesn't, it will be a huge blow to everybody."
India's women footballers have defied scant investment to make inroads, but they have gained only muted recognition, in a country better known for its frenzied obsession with cricket.
The national team are ranked 58th in the women's global rankings — the men are 104th — and last year, Gokulam FC became the first Indian women's team to qualify for an AFC club competition.
National referee Rachana Kamani said that the FIFA suspension would throw the sport's bright future (in the country) into jeopardy, and make it less appealing for budding talents.
"In the last few years, we have seen a rise in women's football, but the rise could come only if we see top football being played on a constant basis," the 23-year-old told AFP.
"With the ban, the activities might reduce, and the willingness to play, in women, might reduce because they will not see a future in the game."
The AIFF's troubles nevertheless saw former chief Praful Patel remain in office beyond his term, without fresh elections.
The Supreme Court ruled his presidency invalid, and appointed administrators to stage fresh elections, to be held on August 28.
The FIFA suspension will remain in place until the AIFF regains full control of its daily affairs.
Women's football in India was already struggling with a lack of resources, and the ban will increase financial pressures, said Jamshed Chenoy, who runs Sharpshooters FC in the city of Ahmedabad.
"The level of support for the women's game in terms of sponsorships will take a hit," he told AFP.
"Even today the players are hampered by a lack of facilities. A lot needs to be done for women's football."
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