The young Indian players would have benefited from the presence of foreign players such as Sabitra Bhandari (right) from Nepal, who was the top scorer for champions Sethu FC in the Indian Women’s League (IWL 2019) this year.
Sethu FC from Tamil Nadu, who beat Manipur Police 3-1 in the final, were crowned the new champions of India in the recently concluded Indian Women’s League (IWL 2019).
Many friends from the national team were playing for Sethu FC and I was happy for their victory after an intense match, not to mention the celebrations that followed. But watching the action from the sidelines, thanks to my injury, was never easy. And, as usual, I was a nervous wreck, reacting crazily at every miss, goal or a breathtaking play.
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That should not have been the case being a neutral spector. But, having been with the national team for the past four months, I have developed a strong bond with some of the players and many of them were playing for Sethu FC. So, deep down, there was no neutrality.
Results notwithstanding, this edition of the IWL has probably been the best one till now. Firstly, since the format was changed, the winners of the state leagues qualified to play in the final round of IWL this time. This ensured that there were 12 teams compared to eight last year, which meant more competitive matches for women footballers. It was also an opportunity for many more young girls to play with and against the best players in the country, and also a platform for them to show their talent to the national team scouts.
Secondly, we witnessed more professionalism from some of the clubs which meant that the national team players got better contracts compared to last year. And last but not the least, there was an increase in competition and the level of football by as foreign players were invited to play.
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It is heartening to see the clubs taking the tournament seriously and ready to invest not just in Indian players but also get some foreigners, who will help the young Indian players learn and improve.
A three-week tournament is a small step for Indian women’s football. In addition, the fact that the three editions have been held in three different locations has helped spread awareness about women’s football in different parts of the country.
A direct effect of this can be seen in the performance and results of the women’s national championship, where the competition has stiffened up, and even expanded. More states are sending teams equipped to compete. The Junior Nationals this year was won by Himachal Pradesh, who have never done well at the nationals until they won the latest edition seemingly out of nowhere.
All these are small indicators that women’s football is growing across the country and is not just restricted or dominated by Manipur which was the case until a couple of years ago.
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The timing of this edition of the IWL worked perfectly in terms of promoting women’s football. The tournament came immediately after the recent national team success which caught the attention of the media and had a lot of people talking about women’s football. Riding on the back of that attention, the league provided a platform for more young girls to shine in the limelight and for the national team scouts to notice some exciting talent to include in the setup.
Having this sort of depth in talent is vital in making progress for a team because it ensures that each and every player has to fight for their position in the national team. No player can now take it easy or take their place in the national team for granted. Only when you have a vast pool of players to choose from can the team progress.
I am glad that these baby steps are being taken by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and also by some of the IWL clubs like Gokulam FC and Sethu FC to develop and contribute to women’s football development. I can only hope that more ISL and I league clubs see the game’s potential for growth and invest in its future.
(The writer is a goalkeeper with the Indian women’s national team and runs the girls exclusive She Kicks Football Academy)
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