Indian Women’s League Heading for Intense Finale; Gokulam Take on Sethu FC
Image Courtesy: Indian Football Team Twitter
Bhubaneswar: The heat is well and truly on in Odisha’s capital Bhubaneswar. On May 26, the Indian Women’s League, the top league in India, will come to a close. The two top teams, Gokulam Kerala from Calicut and Sethu FC of Madurai, play the final game of the season on Thursday with the championship on the line. The organisers, in a rare show of foresight, planned the schedule well. Gokulam and Sethu are the strongest teams in the competition. And, over the course of the 45-day tournament, their superiority on paper showed on the pitch. Both teams have 10 wins from their 10 games so far and both have their eyes on the prize. On the line is not just the title of Champions of India, but a spot in the new AFC Cup for women and a chance to play against the best in the continent.
NewsClick was at the final training sessions ahead of the big day. While infrastructure here is top notch, the timing of the tournament meant players had to battle the heat that hovered around 40 degrees Celsius and humidity levels well above the 50% mark. Amid all this there was the issue of meeting expectations and playing at the highest level. So far, India’s best women footballers have reinforced the idea many of us share–that on an otherwise gloomy football horizon in India, these women offer a glimmer of hope. We caught up with the coaches of both Gokulam and Sethu and over a dozen players from around the country to explore that idea and get a sense of what today’s final means.
Crispin Chhetri, a former professional who is now coaching Sethu FC, started working with the women a couple of years ago on the suggestion of their national team coach Alex Ambrose. He compared the mindset of the players with that of a young, domesticated elephant, caged and made to work on the whims of her master. When the elephants are young, their leg is tied to a rope so that they cannot break free. Over time, the idea of captivity becomes deeply ingrained and the idea of breaking free fades away.
Chhetri wants his young squad to reject this notion and break free, both in their minds and literally. “We came into this tournament with far less time to prepare than we would have liked,” he said, adding “I got the full squad only a couple of days before the league started, so we had no time to bond and understand one another. But we have grown over the past month and a half. Once this belief took over, we realised how good we can play each game, as a dress rehearsal for Gokulam.”
However, Chhetri is disappointed with many aspects of the organisation of the league, including basics like living conditions and the food being provided to the players. “But, for what it’s worth, at least this year the women have been able to play for 2-3 months,” he added. Given the way they were ignored since the pandemic, this is the silver lining on an otherwise dark cloud.
Chhetri concluded: “For now our aim is to win the league and qualify for Asia. For that we have to take Gokulam out of the equation and play the way we played every other game.” Sethu’s young group of players, backed up by India internationals such as Anju Tamang and club captain Sandhiya Ranganathan have put in some incredible performances. Sowmiya Narayansamy, N. Lavanya, Karthika and Grace Hauhnar form the core of a very good unit.
Aditi Chauhan, India’s goalkeeper and Gokulam captain, was respectful in her assessment of the opposition. “Sethu are a very good team and since we are favourites, they have nothing to lose,” she said.
Teammate Dalima Chibber, a set piece specialist and star defender, added: “The pace and intensity of the game will be unlike anything the league has seen so far. We know them well and they know us. We have been looking forward to this game for a while and tomorrow everyone will see why.”
Gokulam’s biggest advantage is the amount of time the team has spent together under young coach Anthony Andrews. They won the Kerala state league, unbeaten, with a goal difference of 99. The core of the team plays for India and hence they stay together even on national duty.
Manisha Kalyan, the country’s most exciting striking prospect at 20, told NewsClick that the game time had helped her grow much faster. “The experience has really helped me. Whether it is finishing or decision-making, there is no substitute for game time. Having gotten so many games this year, I feel stronger and more confident.” The 5’8” attacker from Hoshiarpur has 13 goals from 10 games so far, so, clearly it’s working.
The only player ahead of Kalyan on the striking charts is Ghanaian Elshaddai Acheampong, who has 19 goals already. “I hope my coaches back home with the national team will see my performance and value it,” she said. “The league has been a great platform for us young players and against Sethu I will score three more and we will be champions. My only wish is for the people of Kerala to keep supporting us the way they have. We play as much for them as for ourselves,” she said.
Gokulam, no doubt, has an edge. Adding to the fearsome striking combination are several solid players, including current India captain Ashalata Devi. But Chhetri is unperturbed. “They have some great attacking talent but we have 11 scorers on the pitch and leaders everywhere. That makes us very hard to beat.”
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