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The senior Indian women’s football team has a huge tournament coming up next year. With India set to host the AFC Women’s Asian Cup 2022, the team has qualified for the continental tournament as hosts. As much as it a momentous occasion for the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and the team, the women will have a massive task at their hands against the best teams in Asia. Even if one goes by the FIFA rankings, India is ranked 57th in the world and 11th in Asia. The Japanese women’s national team is a World Cup winner while Australia has one of the best players in the world in Sam Kerr. Apart from the well-known footballing nations in Asia, small countries like Vietnam and Thailand are also way ahead of India.

Ahead of the big Asian Cup test, the Indian team has been on two exposure trips this year – Turkish Women’s Cup and a couple of friendlies in Uzbekistan. India lost all the five matches they played on these two tours, their heaviest defeat coming against Russia 8-0. Indian women’s football team’s right winger Dangmei Grace, however, sees matches like the ones against Russia as excellent for experience.

“In the Turkey trip, we were lucky to play a World Cup team like Russia. Playing against them, we know our weaknesses, where we need to improve, what we are lacking, which will help us in the future. Even in Uzbekistan, playing against a higher-ranked team, it was a learning process for us. There are a lot of things we need to improve, individually and as a team,” Grace told News18.com in an exclusive interaction.

In Uzbekistan, India suffered a narrow 1-0 loss to the host team with Maftuna Shoyimova scoring a beautiful free kick in the 87th minute. In that game, while India were outplayed in the first half, they came back in the second half with a much-better tactical understanding. A couple of good substitutions from coach Maymol Rocky also helped the team put out a hearty performance.

Grace shared that at half time, Maymol just told them in the dressing room that ‘don’t be afraid, give your best and just play all out’ and that is what they did. “In the second half, there were also a lot of changes and we played much better. I too got an opportunity to score but unluckily, we couldn’t finish,” she explained.

Despite that encouraging performance, it all fell apart against Belarus in the second game of the tour. India started on a high note but once the European nation took control of the proceedings, India never got it back. The Indian players were aimlessly running behind the ball at times, there was a serious lack of sense of positioning, they played hassled football and there was simply a lack of control all over the pitch.

On being asked about the reason behind that disappointing 2-1 defeat, Grace attributed it to the lack of maturity. “Against Belarus, no doubt all the players gave their 100 per cent but the maturity to play against the foreign team, that I feel we lacked.”

On being asked whether there were fitness or any other off-the-field issues because Maymol didn’t make positive substitutions in that game, Grace said, “All of them were fit to play because everyone in the XI and the substitutes are all the same but I can only say that there was a lack of maturity in our play.”

In that game, Grace herself looked half-cooked and just dribbled more and more instead of having clarity in thought process. The winger admitted that there is a lot she needs to do in order to improve. “I am trying my best to improve myself because there are a lot of things I have to change in myself too if I have to play big matches against European teams. I need to improve myself first. I always need to give my 100 per cent,” she said.

Grace, however, feels as a right-winger, her attacking contribution to the team is good. “I play as a right-winger and so, I dribble the ball well and then cross it well into the six-yard area so that the strikers get chances to finish – that I believe is my value to the team.”

Belarus game also saw a usual mainstay in Ashalata Devi come on as a substitute in the first half for an injured Soumya Guguloth and then she was replaced by Sandhiya Ranganathan early in the second half. Grace clarified that it was because of “some injury” that Asha did not play much on that tour.

With the Asian Cup not far away, Grace feels that it was time for the team to prepare and be together for the big tournament but because of the rampant second wave of coronavirus in the country, “it’s all messed up”. The Indian Women’s League was supposed to take place in Bhubaneswar in April, which had to be postponed and then there was supposed to a camp for the team in May, which couldn’t be organised too.

Grace said that while the situation around her in Dimdailong Village in Churachandpur District, Manipur was alright, there was still a curfew, which meant a lack of sufficient practice for her. Grace shared that she sometimes practices in the morning at the ground near her home but because it’s rainy, a lot of times the conditions are not conducive for her to play. The footballer is also still waiting to get her first dose of vaccination.

“Football is not an individual game, it requires a group and we need a lot of bonding for playing and passing. It all depends on the state of the group. Because of the situation, it’s really difficult for us. We are still hoping for something good to happen.”

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