Much like women’s football, the Indian Women’s League in its third edition, needs many improvements

  • The third edition of the Indian Women’s League (IWL) will be its largest ever — comprising of 12 teams — with a duration of three weeks.

  • Started in 2017, the IWL has seen participation from 6 and 7 teams respectively, in its first two editions. The duration of the league has remained constant, leading many to dismiss the league as a ‘tournament’.

  • Of the 14 teams originally slated to play IWL-3, Tripura Sports School and the CRPF Women’s teams have pulled out due to reasons unclear.

The third edition of the Indian Women’s League (IWL) will be its largest ever — comprising of 12 teams — with a duration of three weeks.

Started in 2017, the IWL has seen participation from 6 and 7 teams respectively, in its first two editions. The duration of the league has remained constant, leading many to dismiss the league as a ‘tournament’.

The league, much like women’s football in the country, is still finding its feet in the world of Indian sport. Opinions are divided, with those in the women’s game for a long time, stating its effectiveness in reaching out to aspiring female footballers, while officials call for better planning and a longer league. Of the 14 teams originally slated to play IWL-3, Tripura Sports School and the CRPF Women’s teams have pulled out due to reasons unclear.

 Much like women’s football, the Indian Women’s League in its third edition, needs many improvements

Rising Student Club won the second edition of the Indian Women's League. Image Courtesy: Agencies

Eastern Sporting Union, champions of the first edition, will not return to the IWL, while Rising Student, reigning holders, are expected to field a side comprising mainly of junior players. That the first two champions were from Manipur and Odisha does not come as a surprise to those involved in women’s football.

These two states form the backbone of women’s football and the national team due to local leagues running for close to a decade. Bala Devi, captain of the Manipur Police team which will take part in the IWL this time, talks about Manipuri women playing close to 20 games every year across all local tournaments.

“Our local league goes back almost a decade. Sometimes we have 4 teams, sometimes 6. But there are also tournaments for institutional teams held and that gives us more game-time,” she continues.

Manipur Police won the rights to play in the IWL after winning the qualifiers in the state. In September, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) had mandated that only one team from each state would be allowed and that a mandatory qualifying tournament comprising of a minimum of 6 teams playing each other twice in a round-robin format had to be held in order for a state association to send a team to the IWL.

This change came after the first two editions of the IWL, where the AIFF had declared that women’s teams fielded by Indian Super League and I-League sides would gain direct entry to the final round. A majority of the ISL and I-League teams pulled out at the last moment, forcing the AIFF to add more teams from the earlier rounds, virtually ensuring that the final tournament mirrored the qualifiers.

This time around, the AIFF has avoided national qualifiers but the state qualifiers have run into trouble, leading to five state leagues being cancelled, either due to registration issues or for simply not following the format. Uttar Pradesh, for example, saw 18 teams interested, but they played each other in a 5-day knockout tournament, thus flouting the AIFF’s tournament rules. The Western India Football Association (WIFA) in Maharashtra saw 4 of the 6 teams in the final round pulled up for non-compliance with the registration guidelines.

Some teams like Gokulam Kerala did not have to play the qualifiers. “There were 2-3 teams interested but then they pulled out as the league was postponed,” says VC Praveen, an official from the club.

This is the second year running that the I-League club from Kerala will field a team in the IWL, making them the only team from the 20 ISL and I-League sides (excluding the AIFF developmental side Indian Arrows) to do so. “It was a no-brainer for us. A club means men’s, women’s and youth football. Only then is a club complete,” Praveen says.

FC Goa also fielded a team in the state qualifiers, but finished second to Panjim Footballers, who won the Goan league for the second year running. Panjim Footballers will take their spot in the IWL, as will the champions of the Karnataka leg of the qualifiers, Bangalore United Football Club.

Amoolya Venkatesh, a midfielder with the club, says that BUFC are the only outfit in the state to run a women’s program throughout the year. An ex-India international from 2007 to 2014, Amoolya made her debut for the Karnataka women’s team in 1998.

“Most of the players I started with, have either left the sport or taken up full-time jobs due to the lack of opportunities for women’s footballers. The AIFF should ensure that at least former internationals get employed with the federation or in football,” Amoolya states.

Women’s football may not be among the top priority disciplines for sports quota jobs in most states, but Manipur and Odisha lead the way again with a number of women footballers finding employment with the local police and other state agencies.

Thus a majority of women playing the senior game are students, 21 or below, or part-timers juggling the sport with a full-time job. The timing of the junior nationals in Kolhapur, expected to be the scouting platform for the upcoming U-17 Women’s World Cup 2020 squad, and the IWL is unfortunate, coinciding with board and entrance examinations.

Seeni Mohideen, owner of Sethu FC, feels that a calendar should be in place for women’s football to avoid such complications. “For the junior nationals, we had 10 days prior information so it is difficult for us to plan,” says Seeni.

State associations, Seeni continues, can only plan their own calendars in accordance with AIFF’s calendar. The rules, he also argues, have not been uniformly imposed. While the ‘one club one state’ policy has been imposed on heavyweights such as Manipur, Odisha has two teams — Rising Student and SAI Cuttack.

Sethu, like Gokulam, have a sizeable contingent of Manipuri players in their squad. In such a scenario, Bala Devi argues that it would have been better to allow the state to field a second team. Gokulam’s Praveen adds on to the point, stating that the level of competition is likely to be lopsided with one-sided scorelines on the cards.

Another development, Seeni says, is the removal of the mandatory inclusion of two Under-18 players, a move he says will discourage development. With an upcoming World Cup at home, this IWL will have served as a golden chance for 15 and 16-year-olds to make their case for a shot at the 23-player final list.

Tamil Nadu and Sethu’s rise, however, could provide a clue to all states and the AIFF, for the way forward in women’s football. The state won its first nationals in 2018, defeating Manipur 2-1, an upset considering the latter has won 19 of the 24 editions contested, including the 2019 crown.

“Districts like Erode, Ernakulam see strong leagues along with many other places. The strength of the district system has meant that despite the absence of a state league, our grassroots structure is getting stronger,” Seeni remarks. Players such as Indumathi Kathiresan and Sandhiya Ranganathan played crucial roles for the Indian women’s team as they almost reached the third round of the Olympic qualifiers.

The Indian women were pioneers in Asia, becoming one of the first countries to field a full-fledged team in the ’70s but have since failed to kick on. Symptomatic of this decline, on the other side of the scale from Tamil Nadu is West Bengal, which does not have a single team in the IWL to its name.

Winner of 2 of the inaugural 5 senior nationals, Bengal were also one of the first states to start a women’s league but it was soon discontinued. Shanti Mullick, the first Arjuna awardee in women’s football also hails from the state which is considered a powerhouse of Indian football but not in the women’s game.

Kerala, similar to its Eastern counterpart, held a league on one occasion in 2014, but failed to hold any subsequent editions. Traditional hubs of footballing culture shunning the women’s game has not aided the sport in any way.

While state FAs and the AIFF continue to blame each other for the negligence shown to the game, women footballers demand that the sport be played on an equal footing with the men’s game.

“For the men, they play on a home-and-away format. I also wish we played in the same way. Unfortunately, there is no money and sponsors for the women’s game. Without us playing each other across the country, the IWL feels like it is just another version of the nationals,” Bala Devi ends on a sad note.

Updated Date: May 01, 2019 11:08:39 IST