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Sethu FC, Unbeaten and Undisputed Champions of India

Sethu FC, from Tamil Nadu, beat Manipur Police Sports Club 3-1 to win the 2019 Indian Women’s League (IWL 2019).
Sethu FC players with the 2019 Indian Women's League (IWL 2019) trophy

Sethu FC players celebrate after lifting the 2019 Indian Women’s League (IWL 2019) trophy.

Twice the now-iconic Cristiano Ronaldo celebration came out at the 2019 Indian Women’s League (IWL 2019) final yesterday. That jump, turn and tuck routine. The first for the game winner and the second for the game sealer. Not once, though, was the imitator the woman who had hit the back of the net 26 times over the past three weeks. The celebration had been the story in the build up to the final, but not in the way many expected.

Sethu FC finished as they started; a sentence that says very little but perfectly sums up their IWL season. Manipur Police faced them twice, at either end of the competition. The first game of their campaign and the final game of the campaign. 70 goals in between. But the result was the same.

Granted it was done with greater difficulty this time. But it was done again. Manipur Police had gone into half time with the lead, 45 minutes from the title. Sethu though were the better team even then. They passed better, ran better, found the gaps more often, and even blew three chances to score. Even the most casual observer of the game paused to remark that the team in white played some very pretty football. Pause, though, because football isn’t gymnastics and scores don’t take into account beauty in transition.

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Bala Devi, Manipur Police’s lynchpin, was figured out in the final. Apparently this was the trick all along. Crowd her, shadow her spaces, force her wide, hassle her for time on the ball. Who knew. She had glided through every game — even the opener against Sethu — in a supernatural manner. Her physical superiority and finishing ability only minutely surpassed by her desire to prove that everything that happened to her was wrong.

In a 2013 piece for the Guardian, Barney Ronay had called Thomas Muller, a Raumdeuter, the German word which, loosely, translates to “space investigator”. The ability to find space in a game where the ball is what everyone wants, is an undervalued skill. America’s legendary striker, Abby Wambach had it. She was rarely on the ball, but when she was, it was in the net and she was celebrating.

In the six years since — and perhaps always actually — space investigation has moved forward. An individual pursuit has become a team art. Bala Devi may have found the space for her 26 goals in the league, but in the final, her space was gone. Snatched and crowded from her. If she had the ball it was in areas where there was no danger of a goal.

Sethu, through geometry, ballet and ball control took hold of that crucial element of the game. They won the ball in important areas, and even in a tightly contested first half, played some football that Ajax’s triangle philosophers might’ve found remarkable, given the context. A one-person performance piece became three-person theatre. What the philosophers wouldn’t have enjoyed was their wastage in the final third. Five passes and they would be around the Manipur Police box, but right there they seemed lost, like ships at the edge of the world.

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They went down a goal to Manipur Police’s best play of the match. A corner played short, a crafty one-two, spin, twist, stick the knife in. Radharani Devi headed in the opener a minute before half time.

Some drinks then, and a brilliant halftime show involving local dancers — the AIFF finding perfect use of their in-house time machine to take us back to the 90s. There was no one in the stands watching anyway. Thankfully those fifteen minutes went by fairly quickly.

Sethu stormed back. Don’t call it a comeback. The equaliser may have been credited as an own goal, but it had Sethu written all over it. Dangmei Grace cut the ball for Indumathi Kathiresan — clearly the player of the match with two assists and a crucial role in the equaliser — whose shot took a huge deflection off Umapati Devi to end up in the net. As equalisers go, that was Manipur Police’s mood killer. They had looked out of ideas from the start, and their goal was as much fortune as it was imagination. Now Sethu were running the game. This wasn’t a comeback; it was payback.

Five minutes later, Sabitra Bhandari, Nepal international and the the other goal machine of the tournament, glided in to give them the lead. Her numbers may not match Bala’s but when it came to the crunch moments, no one has done it better. In the two games she played against Manipur Police, she scored six times. To add insult to injury, this time, she even took Bala’s version of “the Ronaldo”celebration and made it her own. As if to underscore the point.

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By the time she scored Sethu’s third, Manipur Police had packed up. There were twenty minutes left to play, but very little to report. Sethu, the most dominant team this season had gone unbeaten through it all. Not just that, they scored over three goals in all of their games this season, the margin in the final the closest anyone had run them for a result. 12 minutes — and a half time break — was the amount of time they spent in a losing position on the scoreboard all tournament long.

“We have a lot of local players, and after scouting at the Gold Cup, we added some international players and national team players to the mix too. They are all experienced players, I just had to design a system,” said their coach Amrutha Aravind, her voice bursting through a cacophony of background noise. The team are out in Ludhiana, celebrating. 

“A lot of our local girls are young. Several are in the Junior team. Pavithra, Archana, Kaushalya, Soumya..” the names rolled off her tongue. Sethu had invested in a long term plan. The only way to build a football club. They had signed on young players — some of them part of the Senior Nationals winning TN team from 2018 — and given them scholarships, enrolled them into colleges and given them a future with a plan B. The results were there for all to see.

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For now, though, Aravind wanted to be off and join in the celebrations. In Ludhiana first, then back home.

Tamil Nadu’s hold on the Indian leagues is complete. Chennai City won the I-League. Sethu FC rounded it off with the Indian Women’s League. Rohit Rangarajan, the owner of Chennai City let his feelings out best on Twitter. “In a state where the current football governing bodies hardly functions or let alone others to function or contribute, @ChennaiyinFC @Sethufc_ and @ChennaiCityFC have achieved against the odds! Hoping @IndianFootball AIFF intervenes now at least and help #TamilNadu Football.” ‘Nuff said.

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