Asian Cup women’s football: Cop-turned-coach Dennerby aiming to guide India past group stage

The Swede laughs easily, speaks in a soft, comforting tone and says, with a smile, he is kind. “That’s what a lot of people tell me,” he grins. “That job gave me a different perspective on life…”

On night patrols, Dennerby the policeman had brushes with hardened criminals, intervened in ugly family fights and even prevented suicides. In the mornings, after dealing with the real-world issues, coach Dennerby wouldn’t have the heart to yell at his players for merely missing a pass. “What is more important?” he asks, rhetorically. “That job changed me as a person.”

For a fortnight, starting Thursday, the good cop will patrol the Indian women football team’s dugout in the Asian Cup. The continental championship, which is also a 2023 World Cup qualifier, will kick off on Thursday with a clash between the competition’s most successful team, 8-time champions China, and Chinese Taipei in Mumbai. Later in the day, India will open their campaign against Iran in Navi Mumbai.

Dennerby, the first foreign coach of India’s women team, faces an unenviable task: to take an inexperienced team, which is brimming with potential, past the group stage in its first appearance at the Asian Cup since 2003. “Our first target is to reach the quarterfinals,” he tells The Indian Express. “But first, we have to put a good performance against Iran and then see what happens. It’s thrilling, it’s fine, it’s nice. When it comes to elite sports, you want to be on the big scene.”

The 62-year-old is familiar with the highs of playing on the ‘big scene’. As the coach of Sweden women, Dennerby made up for a group-stage exit at the 2007 World Cup by finishing third in the 2011 edition. It was only the third time Sweden had reached the semifinals of a World Cup. He also was Sweden’s coach at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics; both times, they were knocked out in the quarterfinals.

Then, as the coach of Nigerian women, he guided the team to the women’s African Cup of Nations title in 2018 and, the following year, steered them to the quarterfinals of the World Cup for the first time in 20 years.

Sweden to Nigeria to India

India, though, will be a different challenge. The previous two national teams Dennerby coached had a proper football culture. “In Sweden, most of the girls in the national team have been playing football since they were six years old. It starts with one or two times a week to at least five or six times when they are 15-16 years old with their academy teams. So when they arrive in the national team, they are experienced already. They also play every weekend in the league. To play that much football 11 months a year helps a lot,” he says.

If Sweden had a solid structure, the players in Nigeria had a winning mentality. “The girls were physical, strong, powerful players. Not always super organised, but they had that feeling that ‘no one can beat us, we are number 1.’ They were strong mentally to handle every situation.”

When he accepted the offer to come to India, Dennerby had no knowledge of Indian football. And he wasn’t the only one.

Women’s football has always been an afterthought in India. There has been no proper league, virtually no investment, and no matches for the national team – certainly none of this level. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) has taken baby steps in rectifying the situation in the last two years. But the damage caused by decades of neglect can’t be undone in such a short time.

The federation hopes the Asian Cup and the under-17 World Cup, which India will host later in the year, will fast-track the development of the women’s game. Dennerby, who learnt about his players after watching videos sent by junior women’s coach Alex Ambrose, was originally hired to coach the under-17s. However, after their World Cup got postponed due to the pandemic, he was given charge of the senior side in August last year.

200-plus sessions, 7 international matches

Five months is barely any time to prepare a team for a competition of this magnitude. But it’s not like he’s had to start from scratch.

Dennerby, who learnt about his players after watching videos sent by junior women’s coach Alex Ambrose, was originally hired to coach the under-17s. (File)

The Indian players, he says, were speedy and had a good technique. They, however, needed direction in the way they played. “When you have speed, you need to find the best way to use it. For us, that meant not sending so many long balls for the forwards. So we try to build up, so we can play the crucial pass with more accuracy, making it harder to defend. And then use our speed.”

To last 90 minutes while playing with speed requires a high level of endurance, which India lacked. “It was enough to play one game, rest for a week and then play again. But that’s not what’s going on when you come to a tournament,” Dennerby says.

He roped in Swedish World Cupper Jane Tornqvist, one of the finest defenders of her generation, as the strength and conditioning coach. Tornqvist’s task is to help the team reach a level where they can play a match every three days with the same intensity.

“We have had 90 football sessions, 50 strength sessions, 50 running sessions, seven national team games, 10 internal games, 3 games against local teams,” Dennerby says. “We have had over 200 sessions since we started in August. So even if we learnt one thing in every session, we have learnt 200 things.” Dennerby pauses for a second, smiles, and adds: “Hopefully, we have improved.”

With very little international exposure for the team, the coach and his players enter the tournament blindfolded. It’ll be the young team’s biggest challenge yet. And while the players will fight it out on the pitch, they’ll have the good cop patrolling the dugout.

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