Ahead of the National Senior Women’s Football Championship final in February this year, there was little doubt over who the favourites were. One team had won the title 18 times and the other was playing its first final. Manipur, undoubtedly is the hub of the country’s best women footballers. Tamil Nadu had never made it that far in the previous 22 editions.

In the end, it was the Tamil Nadu women who ended up creating history and causing a flutter in the football circles with a 2-1 win and emerging national champions.

And fast forward a month, a team that is essentially comprised of that title-winning TN side, gets ready for another shot at raising eyebrows. Sethu FC enter the Indian Women’s League, riding on the momentum generated by the famous win.

Tamil Nadu won their first ever senior national title in February this year

Bragging rights over Manipur

“In the qualifying rounds for the IWL, our team had a 60-40 ratio of players from Tamil Nadu and outstation players. But after our state won the national title, we decided to bring in more players from that team,” says Sethu FC head coach Kalpana Dass. “No we have just five players from other states in a 23-member squad.”

The team has two players from Pune, two players from West Bengal and one player from Punjab; these are the only five players retained from the initial round of qualifiers as they go into the tournament with a clear identity. One that of a team from Tamil Nadu.

“When the league was announced last year, we wanted to send a team, it did not work out,” says Sethu FC owner Seeni Mohaideen. “This time I registered the team under Sethu FC, a club where the men’s team has been around for 16 years now. And once the Tamil Nadu team won the national title, we wanted to make sure the core of that team plays for Sethu FC.”

Indumathy Kathiresan, who was the player of the final and the tournament in Tamil Nadu’s march to the title, has no doubts over the importance of this league, in trying to establish a name for herself and her team.

“Every time I went to the nationals, defeating Manipur was my aim. They were just a different class in the past,” Indumathy says. “Our teams in the past were decent but this time we were very well prepared. The facilities now are much better. But to defeat a team made primarily of India players, was a great feeling.”

And in her mind, IWL is coming at just the right time. “This IWL is another chance for us to show that Tamil Nadu players are good too,” Indumathy continues.

“Defeating Manipur in the nationals is in the past now. When we face the two teams from Manipur in this tournament, it’s another opportunity for us to win and show we deserve to play for India as well. We have seen Manipur players dominate the Indian team for a while now, we must show that players from Tamil Nadu deserve more than just one or two spots in the national team. And the only way to do it is by winning a tournament like IWL.”

A competitive league

Kalpana, former FC Pune City coach and AFC A-Licence holder, is wary of comparing the nationals and a professional tournament like IWL. “This league will be a different ball-game,” she says. “The quality of teams will be higher here and they will be better prepared, there will be outstation players to strengthen already good teams. So it is not going to be easy, but as Sethu FC, we want to play our brand of good football and try and win as many games as possible.”

Muruhavendhan, coach of the Tamil Nadu women’s team and advisor for Sethu FC, is pleased that such a league exists to improve women’s football. “There are so few tournaments organised for women’s football. How would you know the results of how good someone is, if they keep studying all their life without an examination to test their skills,” asks Muruhavendhan. “That’s where a tournament like IWL is a boon for these women. Hopefully this improves, not just football in Tamil Nadu, but all over India. And being involved in the grassroot level, I can already see improvements in the standard of these players over the past two-three years.”

Help from AIFF

Mohaideen, for his part, acknowledges the importance of the IWL, but hopes the AIFF does more to help the teams out. “We sent our team to Shillong more than two weeks in advance so that they get used to the conditions, but it’s all our own expense,” says Mohaideen. “If the AIFF was really serious about developing women’s football, you’d think they would be willing to sponsor travel and accommodation for the top seven teams that have made it to the final stages of IWL

The dream, then, is to ensure this translates into a career for these footballers, something that Mohaideen has been campaigning for a while. “To play in a professional set-up like IWL is also very useful for us,” Indumathy says. “The nationals are fine, but to play in a league like this, where we don’t have to worry about equipment, good coaching, exposure of playing with footballers from outside the state - it’s important for us.”

And for the captain, nothing less than the crown will do: “The aim is to win the title. There is no doubt about that. We are a good team, we are in good form after the nationals and we want to return as the winners of IWL.”