Most ISL and I-League clubs do not have a regular women’s team—they assemble one for competitions. In November, football club Eastern Sporting Union (ESU) made the long trip from Imphal to Kolhapur to play the qualifiers of the second Indian Women’s League (IWL). It involved two flights to Mumbai, an overnight stay, followed by a night train to Kolhapur.
As the defending champions, ESU had requested entry into the final round, but were told that four berths were reserved for two I-League and Indian Super League (ISL) teams each. The two teams that topped their respective pools in the qualifiers would join them in the final round.
For the next three weeks or so, ESU slogged it out with a pool of just 13 players, as five others had not been given permission to play by their employers. It took a heartening effort for them to top their pool, while Cuttack-based Rising Student Club took the top spot in the other—these are the two sides that played the final last year.
By the time the final round, scheduled for March, arrived, all the I-League and ISL clubs, other than Gokulam Kerala, had pulled out. Consequently, Kryphsa (Kangchup Road Young Physical and Sports Association), the India Rush Soccer Club, Sethu FC and Indira Gandhi Academy, which had featured in the qualifiers, were asked to play again to make up the numbers.
The qualifiers turned out to be a pointless exercise for ESU—four teams that failed to qualify made it to the final round—and by the end of it, they had spent Rs8.5 lakh just on the travel, besides another Rs3.2 lakh on preparations for the tournament.
“Why should the defending champions play the qualifiers, only to face the same teams again in the final round? The lack of organization really affects a club like ours,” says an ESU official, requesting anonymity. The final round is currently under way.
The IWL only started last season. Most players still need a day job to make a living—a stark contrast to their male counterparts, who have had a league since the National Football League was started in 1996. For the record, the Indian women’s team is ranked 59th in the world and 13th in the Asian Football Confederation—Indian men are ranked 99 in the world.
Most ISL and I-League clubs do not have a regular women’s team—they assemble one for competitions. But in the case of this year’s IWL, many of them didn’t bother.
When it comes to women’s football, the All India Football Federation’s (Aiff’s) role so far has been restricted mostly to organizing tournaments, though it’s not short of funds. According to Fifa.com, “FIFA, through its Forward Programme, invests money back into the game by working together with member associations...with India seeing $700,000 contributed to establish a women’s league in the country: the Indian Women’s League (IWL).”
“We had only the nationals initially, but now there is the IWL. It’s good for the development of the game, yet more needs to be done,” says Shukla Datta, head coach of the Rising Student Club.
While Aiff runs many grass-roots programmes, they only last for a day or two. Most of the work on real development is still being executed by feeder clubs such as the ESU, Kryphsa (also based out of Imphal) and Rising Student Club—and on their own strength.
Though Mumbai-based India Rush SC currently have no local players, they are grooming many age-group sides for the future. Similarly, Sethu FC’s core comprises players from their home state of Tamil Nadu. Club owner M. Seeni Mohaideen not only tends to their football needs, but also looks after their education.
One of the oldest sides in women’s football, ESU have been running a team since 1973, yet they had to depend on donations from patrons until they managed to get support last year from Tata Trusts, as well as Four Corners Unite—an initiative by Mumbai resident Tejesh Sharma. While that meant they had enough funds to play the tournament, ESU would have preferred to use these for player development.
The club has recruited over 50 girls for different age categories—some from underprivileged backgrounds— and is grooming them for the national team, which currently has seven players from the club.
“How do we justify this expenditure on a tournament when we’ve taken on the responsibility of grooming so many more? In Manipur, football can help these girls get jobs. We would rather invest money in making players, than play qualifiers which have no meaning,” the ESU official says.
Few want to invest in women’s football. “Most of these I-League and ISL teams have a budget for men’s teams, but don’t see an incentive to start a women’s side. Teams such as ESU and Kryphsa have groomed their girls over the years, so their players are loyal. We too want to do the same in the future,” says an official from India Rush SC who did not wish to be identified.
While individual efforts are laudable, it’s time perhaps for Aiff to focus more on the grass roots.
April is a busy month for sports fanatics in the country. A lot of tournaments are either going on or will start soon. The Commonwealth Games and the Indian Premier League are dominating headlines across India. In the midst of all this and away from the din, the second season of Indian women’s football league is taking place.
The talking point about the otherwise nondescript tournament is foreign players. The men’s version of the I-League sees them by scores every season, but women players from other countries have never plied their trade in the subcontinent so far. That has changed thanks to two Ugandan players roped in by Kerala’s Gokulam FC. Tamil Nadu’s Sethu FC too has one from Bangladesh.
These are no just random players. Fazila Ikwaput and Ritah Nabbosa of Gokulam have recently played for their national team. And Fazila is the Federation of Uganda Football Association’s reigning player of the year. Why would a player of such calibre come to India?
“I know the standard of the women’s league is not that good in India. I wanted to venture out of Uganda for more opportunities and the opportunity from Gokulam Kerala FC came in at the right time. I didn’t have second thoughts as I was very clear about what I wanted to do,” Fazila told Express.
“Back in Uganda, we have home leagues which have been my basis of growth in football and the leagues are really competitive. Last year, I was the MVP and was also awarded the Best Female Player in Uganda. I felt the time was right to get out of the country and test my skills against players from other countries.”Hailing from east Mbale, Fazila has not been that affected by the civil war. The country is still conservative and women are generally not encouraged to take up football as a career. But Fazila was lucky. From parents to the federation, she had their support. And she feels the situation is slowly changing for women.
“I chose football because it’s a game of joy and I also got to make friends playing back home as well as at the international level. People around me including my family and friends valued my skills and by playing, I also entertained them. The game is liked by almost everybody back home,” she said.
Africans changed India’s footballing scene when they first came in. From physical attribute to skills, they were an instant hit. But no player of high standard has played here for long. Fazila is not sure about her future in India. “I am staying till the league gets over. After that I might go back to Uganda. If something comes up from Europe I will surely take it.”
Fazila may not play in India again, but the presence of players like her can be a new dawn for women’s football in the country.
Started in 2010 as an attempt to promote local kids’ interest in football, Rising Student Club fielded a women’s team in a league at Cuttack. The team would see girls from nearby districts clubbed into one side as they would go head-to-head against eight other teams. It was only in 2016 that a dedicated women’s team was started, thanks to the commencement of Indian Women’s League (IWL).
The Odisha-based club had a wonderful spell in IWL’s first season only to fall prey to Eastern Sporting Union in the finale. However, as fate would have it, they were pitted against familiar foes ESU this year in the ultimate clash. ‘’Before heading into the match, I had a talk with my players. Everywhere on Facebook, the posts read ‘Champion Eastern Union vs Rising Student Club’ for the finale. I wanted ‘Champion Rising Student’ to be used for us. I told them I wanted to hear the word ‘champion’ with our names,’’ coach Shukla Dutta told Goal.
90 minutes of regulation time, 30 minutes of extra time and a total of nine spot-kicks later, the result was decided in sudden death as Dutta’s girls emerged victorious. They were termed champions, just like Dutta wished. But the journey of these girls hasn’t been easy at all. Coming from not-so-well-to-do backgrounds, the players do other professional jobs to earn their living.
‘’The girls are all from a humble background. They are earning whatever they can from this league and also this is their only platform to earn recognition.
"Most of the girls work with the Indian Railways while some girls are employed at the Odisha Police. The U-19 and U-18 kids are still playing for Odisha so they aren’t working yet,’’ states Gitanjali Khuntia, the team manager.
‘’Odisha Football Association and Odisha Government have a tie-up wherein the players have got jobs through sports quota. Whenever the players have national tournaments or leagues, prior permission is requested for their leaves,’’ she adds.
Coach Dutta too believes that more than anything, the victory and the tournament has financially assisted the girls which makes a huge difference in their lives. ‘’IWL’s start is good because it helps the players. Some of the girls are financially challenged. Winning the IWL adds to their earning and I appreciate the AIFF for their efforts in the league.’’
While the title glory would cater financial aid to the players, it was about pride and honour for coach Dutta. ‘’For 26 days, I couldn’t sleep well at night. This was a matter of prestige for me,’’ she commented.
Shukla always cuts an animated figure on the sidelines. She believes that this was pivotal in clinching the victory in the finale against a formidable ESU. ‘’Communication is important. Eastern Sporting Union are a very skilful side so if we don’t man-mark them, then we are in trouble. Every message disseminated from the technical area was taken seriously and followed on the field which I really liked,’’ she recalled.
The finale was not the first time Rising Student took the game to the tie-breaker. The outfit had knocked out title favourites KYRPHSA in the semi-final on penalties which the coach believes was their best performance.
‘’I made my side block KYRPHSA’s two main players, Bala Devi and Grace Dangmei, because they were capable of troubling us. Once we went into the penalties, I knew we would succeed because we are the best at tiebreakers. I was aware of Manipuri girls’ incapability of excelling in such situations and took advantage of it.
‘’Even in the final at the end of 90 minutes, I told them to somehow hold on for another 30 minutes so we head into yet another penalty shootout. I wanted the match to proceed into the tiebreaker from the beginning.’’
When asked how nerve-racking was the decision to choose the penalty takers, Shukla answered, ‘’I had pre-decided my players for the penalty shootouts. In our semi-final’s tiebreaker I was a little worried but in this match, I was very confident because the girls were equally confident.’’
Crowned deserved winners of IWL 2018, Rising Student Club have shown their unending grit by getting the better of KRYPHSA and Eastern Sporting Union in the tournament. Knocking out the tournament’s toughest sides was a statement of intent and while they have the winners’ medals around their necks, they have also earned bragging rights as a team outside of North-East India has been named winners of women’s premier division.
Odisha can rejoice, for Rising Student Club ladies have lifted the trophy against all odds, and in a remarkable manner.
The Indian Women’s League in it’s second edition saw foreign players being allowed for the first time in the nascent league. Sethu FC and Gokulam were the two teams who used this ruling to their advantage, roping in two and three foreigners respectively.
Sethu FC acquired the services of British footballer of Indian origin Tanvie Hans, and Bangladeshi players, striker Sabina Khatun and midfielder Krishna Rani Sarkar. Both were internationals for the Tigresses and despite visa troubles, eventually turned out for the Tamil Nadu club.
Initially, the Indian High Commission in Dhaka had not provided the visas to the Bangla duo, citing a lack of information, but both were cleared and would take part in Sethu FC’s run to the semi-finals of IWL 2.
Khatun, as a striker, proved her mettle, scoring six goals for Kalpana Dass’ team, more than half their total, as she set up a formidable partnership with team captain Indumathi Kathiresan, the duo scoring nine of the team’s 11 goals in the tournament.
“It was a friendly atmosphere within the team. Me and Indu had a good relationship. It made me really happy to play in the league. All teams are good and it was really competitive,” says a happy Sabina.
She scored the decisive goal for Sethu FC in four of their six matches, showing good awareness and marksmanship. Fresh off winning the senior women’s nationals, Tamil Nadu and Sethu captain Indumati developed a connection with Khatun, assisting her for half of her girls.
The team consisting of the players from Tamil Nadu’s national winners scored a lot of goals at the death, including Sabina, who scored four of them in the last 15 minutes of games. Her most impressive performance arguably came against eventual champions Rising Student, whom Sethu defeated 2-0 in the league stage.
“The pass for the first goal was wonderful, Indu showed superb vision in setting it up and all I had to do was finish it. For Manisha’s 90th minute goal, I saw her run and slid it to her,” said Khatun.
In the match between Sethu and India Rush, Sabina had changed the game once again. Having already scored once in the first-half to bring her team level, she was instructed to be furthest forward for her team when the chance arrived. With the score deadlocked at 2-2 and Sethu already having missed a penalty through Kathiresan, Khatun seized her chance in the 86th minute with aplomb, curling it beyond Indian national team keeper Aditi Chauhan.
The Bangladesh women’s captain started her career at the age of 15, turning out for her district team Sathkira in the Khulna division. “My coach Akbar Ali was the one who first gave me a break in the district team during the national championships. I got recognised during this competition and was called up subsequently,” said Khatun.
In a tournament with more than 45 teams, the then-15-year-old Khatun did extremely well to make the final short list of 40 women, who were called up to the national camp for the SAFF Championships of 2010.
Eight years later, Khatun is not only an established member of the senior team, but it’s captain and leader. Despite losing to Singapore and Malaysia recently, she remains upbeat about the national team’s prospects.
“The federation (Bangladesh Football Federation) is trying to arrange more games for the team. We need the match practise. We did decently well in the 2016 SAFF Championships. We need to build on that,” the Tigresses’ 24-year-old captain states.
So influential was she for the team that even a rule stating that only one foreigner was allowed on the pitch at a time didn’t stop her from playing, as Dass kept her in the playing eleven despite Sarkar and Hans’ presence in the squad.
Unsure about the future, Khatun hopes to return to Indian pitches really soon, considering that she played with a higher level of opposition in Shillong than she is used to do back home.
Having played for the likes of Sheikh Jamal Dhanmondi and Mohammedan SC in Bangladesh, Sabina headed out to Maldives in search of football as she played for the police and army clubs in 2015 and 2016.
“My time there was good. Even though the football there was not as good as India’s, I was happy I finished with the top scorer in my stint at the futsal league,” says Sabina. She scored 37 goals in the Futsal league, but Bala Devi, Indian women’s captain, would end as the top scorer for New Radiant SC in the football league.
Bala is incidentally one of Sabina’s favourite footballers, as is Bembem Devi, Arjuna awardee and record appearance holder for the Indian women’s captain. All three, Bala, Bembem and Sabina, had similar starts in football, playing a lot of football with boys in their locality, as they were too good for girl-only squads at a young age.
An honours state in social science from Gono Vishwavidyalaya (University), Dhaka, Sabina keeps herself fit by training with the Under-16 team and is also an assistant coach of the team.
“In the absence of regular game time and a league, I travel with the junior team since I have a B license. We definitely need to re-start the women’s league. The players can be adequately compensated only when there is a league. The players also get to improve with enough compeitition,” Sabina rues the lack of league football in her country.
Despite all the hurdles for the growth of women’s football in her country, Sabina remains hopeful, “The times are changing. Before, people would stare and ask you things such as why I was playing football in shorts. Not anymore.”
Kamla Devi, top scorer of last year's edition of Indian Women's League (IWL) and part of league's inaugural champions Eastern Sporting Union (Manipur), recalls an incident. Last year, a private airline’s flight she was supposed to board from Delhi for Patna got cancelled. When she requested the airline authorities to put her on the next available flight as she had to report to her team by 5 pm, she wasn’t taken seriously. “There was a flight at 9:35 am, but they refused to put me in until one of my managers called Indigo airline staff and asked them why they couldn’t do something so simple for an Indian woman footballer. Because had it been men footballers they would have been let on the first available flight,” she says.
Such incidents are not out of the blue for Kamla who has been part of the national team for over eight years. But Kamla demands more respect for women footballers in India — “respect in every field and every aspect”. IWL is seen as a hope towards identifying local talent and widening opportunities for footballers. Organisers of the league were optimistic after the performance of the Indian women’s team in the 2016 South Asian Games, where it won the gold, like the 2010 edition.
“Women’s football got a very good fan-following from the public at large during the time,” says Arkibanshngain Nongrum, one of the organisers of the league, who is also the CEO of the Meghalaya Football Association.
The 2016 South Asian Games were held in Meghalaya’s Shillong and Assam’s Guwahati. IWL’s shift of venue this year from Delhi to Shillong, despite the state not having a team of its own in the league, was an effort in maintaining the momentum. “We chose Meghalaya as a venue because we wanted to bring women’s football up in Meghalaya. Secondly, the South Asian Games fared extremely well out here. The required infrastructure and facilities are also available in the state, which makes it suitable for IWL,” says Nongrum.
Bembem Devi has played a major role in shaping women's football in India. An Arjuna Award winner, Bembem retired from the national team in 2016 after a two-decade-long career. She played from the Eastern Sporting Union last year, and this year she is only coaching the team. Bembem explains that for her, the key to being a good leader is to make the girls feel comfortable enough for them to feel like they have a sister in her. It takes her back to 2007 when she was playing in a team where most were 10 years younger to her.
She says she has noticed that most Indian states are skeptical in encouraging girls to pursue football as their career, let alone simply playing football. She blames the existing mindset. “We, women footballers from different parts of India, are trying our best from time to time to prove these typical Indian societies wrong and show them that girls and women too should be given the same respect and opportunity as men."
On the poor representation from Meghalaya, Bembem says she knows many good women footballers from the state but it is sad to see that there is no team representing it. “I request the sports minister of the state to look into the matter and create ways for aspiring youths of Meghalaya who want to pursue football as their career. In fact, I hope that other state governments too will not let aspiring women footballers just stay aspiring, but will give them a platform to showcase their talent, so that each state can produce their own football stars.”
Nongrum is sure that the recently-concluded league will have an impact in the long run on women’s football in the state. “Many aspiring women footballers come to the ground to watch the teams train and play. So I’m sure that itself is a motivation for them (aspiring footballers). The fans are even catching them on Facebook Live. I’m sure they are inspired and see that there is a platform for women footballers from Meghalaya as well.”
He says there are a couple of players from Meghalaya, but in teams that did not qualify into the final round.
Nongrum says the league is working on developing a team that will represent Meghalaya in the next IWL. “Meghalaya has talent definitely, but now we are working on it’s structure, because it’s not only about putting a team together, but how to sustain the team and to make sure that it survives for a long time.”