Gokulam Kerala struggled to scout players from their home state for their maiden Indian Women’s League (IWL) season. Only four from the squad’s 25 are from Kerala.
It isn’t a surprise though. The senior women’s national team coach, Maymol Rocky, is from the state but she readily admits that the women’s football set-up in her home state is close to non-existent. The southern state may be a powerhouse of men’s football, but the women’s game in its current state is a shadow of the male version.
After the withdrawal of previous season’s participants, the league organisers – the All India Football Federation (AIFF) – decided to invite four new teams directly to the final round. One among them was Gokulam Kerala, who also made their I-League debut this season (and finished seventh).
It is, perhaps, the last-minute invite that disallowed the club sufficient time to explore, seek and put together talent from Kerala. But, according to the club’s head of operations Rizwan Rajah, talent itself is scarce in the football-crazed state when it comes to women’s soccer.
“Even if we had time, it wouldn’t have made much difference,” he says. “States like Odisha have talent in abundance. If you go there, there are more women playing football than men. The government also support them. Here [in Kerala], you don’t find that many players.”
Almost all the players in the squad were scouted by head coach PV Priya. She’s been involved with women’s football in Kerala for over a decade. She has also coached the national Under-14 and Under-19 teams. So, through her contacts, the club contracted most players for this season.
Kerala’s Uganda imports
They have also signed two international players – Fazila Ikwaput and Ritah Nabbosa – of Uganda. Fazila, 20, started watching the game on TV and she observed this: “Everybody playing football is happy and it’s a game of making friends.”
In the 2017-18 season, she was awarded Federation of Uganda Football Association’s (FUFA) Women Footballer of the Year. This is the first time she’s playing abroad and, she is excited about the challenges of playing with teammates, and against opponents, who are culturally and linguistically different (both Fazila and Ritah, according to club president Praveen, speak broken English). But, as Fazila had observed, football is a game of making friends. As the league progresses, she’d hope to gel with the rest of the team that might improve the Kerala club’s chances.
Praveen hopes for the same. He says the influx of foreign stars will help the league in several aspects. “With limited players available in India, signing a (domestic) player is difficult. Also, with more foreign players coming, the quality of Indian players will also improve. And they (Indian players) stand a chance to go play outside because these foreigners can take them. Or maybe it will help us organise matches with their country’s clubs.”
He rues the rule of fielding only one foreign player in a match. The clubs can also have only a maximum of two foreign players in their squads. He wants at least three players in the squad and an allowance of two in the playing XI. For, he feels, it would improve the combination of the team.
But Praveen realises the limitations of his hastily put-together team. Unlike several other teams in the league, Gokulam Kerala, he knows, haven’t played the qualifying rounds. And they have practiced only a little over 10 days.
“We have told them our men’s team has given some good results this year, so nothing is impossible,” he says. “They are all girls who want to prove a thing or two. They are hardworking and focussed. We want to concentrate on one match at a time and reach the semi-finals. From there, it’s anybody’s game.”
If the team’s efforts satisfies Praveen, he’s planning to extend the players’ contracts to one year after the season. “We are looking to form a permanent team. The idea is to uplift women’s football.”
More home state players from next season
Next season, Rizwan says, the club will look to include more players from Kerala. He hopes the league and the club’s performance in it will spark interest in the girls of the state.
For this season though, the team, even without any national stars, is hoping to beat the odds. Captain Anita Rawat, 22, from Uttarakhand, hopes this will be a turning point of her life. She took to football after her father, who used to play in the Indian Army. She wants to use the league as the launchpad to reach the Indian team.
Sikkim’s Lako Puti Bhutia has the same ambition. “I started football because of my sister and I love football. I just want to get selected for the Indian team and motivate Sikkim girls to play football,” she says.
First-timers in the league. Zero match experience. Very less practice. Not many would bet on Gokulam Kerala to even qualify for the final. But if they manage to achieve that, may be they’d find it easier to find players from their home state in the future.