Eastern Sporting Union, the champions of the inaugural Indian Women’s League in 2017, also played and were unbeaten in the qualifiers for the second edition.

Why would the champions have to play qualifiers and why didn’t they get direct entry?

Because the team wanted more match practice, something women’s footballers in India don’t always have the luxury of. They ended up unbeaten throughout the competition with five wins and the solitary draw coming against the other club from Manipur, Kryphsa. How is that for practice?

Heading into the second edition starting on March 25 in Shillong, there will be a lot more scrutiny on, and expectations from the defending champions will be sky-high. It doesn’t help that they have lost several of their victorious team members to Kryphsa, including Indian women’s captain Bala Devi.

Image Credit: AIFF Media

But the Manipur-based team still has their talisman – Oinam Bembem Devi, the face of Indian women’s football for almost two decades. This year, the 37-year-old will be with them as their head coach after lifting the IWL trophy last year as player-manager and ending her career on a high. Later that year, she was presented with an Arjuna Award, answering a long-time call from football fans in India.

Bembem hopes to emulate last year’s feat from behind the scenes, but this is a little different from the one that won the title winners, although they retain the same hunger.

“Defending the title is important, but it is not going to be easy. All the other clubs will focus on us and will hard to work to beat us. So we have to prepare to maintain same level like last year,” Bemem told The Field ahead of the start of the second edition of IWL.

“Yes there are many new players and we have some coming from local clubs as well. But we are aiming to defend our title,” she added.

Well-balanced unit

ESU still have Kamala Devi, the top scorer in last year’s edition, who also scored two goals in the final, and Prameshwori Devi, in their ranks. Both players were instrumental in the 3-0 win in the final over Rising Student’s Club.

The coach believes her team is well-balanced unit with good players in all positions and refuses to single out anyone as the standout player. “All our players are very good, in different positions we have the right players so I can’t say a single name,” she insisted.

But prod her further and she says that goalkeeper Elangbam Panthoi Chanu will play a very important role for the team.

Image Credit: Facebook/Panthoi Chanu

“Chanu is India’s no 1 goalkeeper and a hero for our club, We also have a experienced defenders and then there are the juniors, two 19-year-olds who are also very good on the field,” she said.

Tough competition

Unlike last year, IWL won’t have teams from the I-League and Indian Super League participating this year, with the exception of 2017-18 debutants Gokulam Kerala FC, the only I-League club to field a team.

While the absence of these teams might affect things in the larger scheme, it also means that Manipur will have two teams participating in the league. This is a positive for the hotbed of Indian women’s football, with the state team having won 18 out of 23 national championships.

Bembem says that both teams from the state will have to work harder, with the competition in the IWL getting tougher.

“No ISL teams and I League teams in the IWL is not a good thing, but even the clubs that are participating are strong and have players that are capable. The I-League club Gokulam FC is going to be there so it good for the league. But the girls are motivated to perform so the absence of I League teams doesn’t matter so much,” Bembem said.

“I want to encourage women’s football, even if the teams are not as strong because there are no I-League teams,” the former national captain added.

Squad: Panthoi Chanu, Monika, Radharani, Umabati, Achoubi, Sweety, Thahenbi, Manisha, Manda, Ranji, Anjali, Sultana, Pinku, Premi, Premeshwori, Kamala, Kashmina, Roja, Rinaroy, Pramodini, and Lomching

Apart from Bembem, the team will have RK Amusana as assistant coach, C Leima as Physio and A Premjit as manager.