The Indian Women’s League in it’s second edition saw foreign players being allowed for the first time in the nascent league. Sethu FC and Gokulam were the two teams who used this ruling to their advantage, roping in two and three foreigners respectively.

Sethu FC acquired the services of British footballer of Indian origin Tanvie Hans, and Bangladeshi players, striker Sabina Khatun and midfielder Krishna Rani Sarkar. Both were internationals for the Tigresses and despite visa troubles, eventually turned out for the Tamil Nadu club.

Initially, the Indian High Commission in Dhaka had not provided the visas to the Bangla duo, citing a lack of information, but both were cleared and would take part in Sethu FC’s run to the semi-finals of IWL 2.

Khatun, as a striker, proved her mettle, scoring six goals for Kalpana Dass’ team, more than half their total, as she set up a formidable partnership with team captain Indumathi Kathiresan, the duo scoring nine of the team’s 11 goals in the tournament.

A tigress in her own right

“It was a friendly atmosphere within the team. Me and Indu had a good relationship. It made me really happy to play in the league. All teams are good and it was really competitive,” says a happy Sabina.

She scored the decisive goal for Sethu FC in four of their six matches, showing good awareness and marksmanship. Fresh off winning the senior women’s nationals, Tamil Nadu and Sethu captain Indumati developed a connection with Khatun, assisting her for half of her girls.

The team consisting of the players from Tamil Nadu’s national winners scored a lot of goals at the death, including Sabina, who scored four of them in the last 15 minutes of games. Her most impressive performance arguably came against eventual champions Rising Student, whom Sethu defeated 2-0 in the league stage.

“The pass for the first goal was wonderful, Indu showed superb vision in setting it up and all I had to do was finish it. For Manisha’s 90th minute goal, I saw her run and slid it to her,” said Khatun.

In the match between Sethu and India Rush, Sabina had changed the game once again. Having already scored once in the first-half to bring her team level, she was instructed to be furthest forward for her team when the chance arrived. With the score deadlocked at 2-2 and Sethu already having missed a penalty through Kathiresan, Khatun seized her chance in the 86th minute with aplomb, curling it beyond Indian national team keeper Aditi Chauhan.

The Bangladesh women’s captain started her career at the age of 15, turning out for her district team Sathkira in the Khulna division. “My coach Akbar Ali was the one who first gave me a break in the district team during the national championships. I got recognised during this competition and was called up subsequently,” said Khatun.

In a tournament with more than 45 teams, the then-15-year-old Khatun did extremely well to make the final short list of 40 women, who were called up to the national camp for the SAFF Championships of 2010.

Eight years later, Khatun is not only an established member of the senior team, but it’s captain and leader. Despite losing to Singapore and Malaysia recently, she remains upbeat about the national team’s prospects.

“The federation (Bangladesh Football Federation) is trying to arrange more games for the team. We need the match practise. We did decently well in the 2016 SAFF Championships. We need to build on that,” the Tigresses’ 24-year-old captain states.

Foreign stints and future hopes

So influential was she for the team that even a rule stating that only one foreigner was allowed on the pitch at a time didn’t stop her from playing, as Dass kept her in the playing eleven despite Sarkar and Hans’ presence in the squad.

Unsure about the future, Khatun hopes to return to Indian pitches really soon, considering that she played with a higher level of opposition in Shillong than she is used to do back home.

Having played for the likes of Sheikh Jamal Dhanmondi and Mohammedan SC in Bangladesh, Sabina headed out to Maldives in search of football as she played for the police and army clubs in 2015 and 2016.

“My time there was good. Even though the football there was not as good as India’s, I was happy I finished with the top scorer in my stint at the futsal league,” says Sabina. She scored 37 goals in the Futsal league, but Bala Devi, Indian women’s captain, would end as the top scorer for New Radiant SC in the football league.

Bala is incidentally one of Sabina’s favourite footballers, as is Bembem Devi, Arjuna awardee and record appearance holder for the Indian women’s captain. All three, Bala, Bembem and Sabina, had similar starts in football, playing a lot of football with boys in their locality, as they were too good for girl-only squads at a young age.

An honours state in social science from Gono Vishwavidyalaya (University), Dhaka, Sabina keeps herself fit by training with the Under-16 team and is also an assistant coach of the team.

“In the absence of regular game time and a league, I travel with the junior team since I have a B license. We definitely need to re-start the women’s league. The players can be adequately compensated only when there is a league. The players also get to improve with enough compeitition,” Sabina rues the lack of league football in her country.

Despite all the hurdles for the growth of women’s football in her country, Sabina remains hopeful, “The times are changing. Before, people would stare and ask you things such as why I was playing football in shorts. Not anymore.”