From the stands (Chennai): Watching IWL champions Sethu FC get their season started
Considering the plethora of talent in their ranks, Sethu FC should be able to sail through the Tamil Nadu Women’s League and prepare themselves to once again take on heavyweights Eastern Union and Rising Students in the final round of Indian Women's League.
It is difficult to be a footballer in a country where the game is hard to come by. Cricket still dominates the public imagination, largely owing to the decades of domination by the senior teams in international competitions, while fast-reducing open spaces and the ‘turf’ revolution (where grounds are being reduced to smaller, confined spaces with artificial turfs laid out) have seen the sport being taken away from a certain 'class' of the society that has often produced the best footballers across the world. Where do you play football if there aren’t any grounds?
Well, when there are grounds, access becomes another problem. Imagine having to shift the opening matches of the state’s inaugural edition of the women’s league to a girls college in the remotest part of the city because the main ground (which itself is poorly maintained) wasn’t available because of (allegedly) a film promotion event in the indoor stadium adjacent to the ground.
Despite the omnipresent challenges, the world’s most popular game continues to grow in popularity in Tamil Nadu, with the women leading from the forefront. Sethu FC, a club based in Madurai, showed how smart identification of talent and proper nurturing can go a long way by winning the second edition of the Indian Women’s League in early 2019. Chennai City FC’s I-League success and Chennaiyin’s growth as a prominent Indian Super League club have also aided the growth of football in the state.
The success has masked severe problems within the state football though. Chennai’s senior division football stands suspended (for the second year) due to an ongoing tiff between the Chennai Football Association and the Tamil Nadu State Football Association. It is difficult to side with one. Both seem right. Both are most certainly wrong too. Their egos have taken away a platform for young footballers to develop -- the same stage that provided the opportunity for the likes of Michael Soosairaj (ATK), Nandhakumar Sekar (Odisha FC) and Edwin Vanspaul (Chennaiyin FC) to make a professional football career.
The announcement of the Tamil Nadu State Women’s Division came as a pleasant surprise for the state’s football lovers. Even though the Indian Women’s League is far from a well-organized set-up, the success of Sethu FC has sparked an interest in the state. The National Championship victory by the women also played a huge role. Some might even claim Vijay-starrer Bigil played a role in promoting the game (though the CGI-inspired football played with both the feet off the ground in front of 50 thousand fans felt like a fantasy scene out of a Thor Ragnarok than an actual sports film). Whatever be the cause, the women were finally getting their due.
The three matches on day one hardly mattered in the larger scheme of things. All three were bound to be one-sided affairs and that is exactly how the results turned out to be. The Tamil Nadu Police, captained by Indian national team player Indumathi, beat Minerva FC 16-0. Thamizhachi dominated Wow Women in the second encounter of the day, played in soaring temperatures at 11 am. Pandiselvi, Thamizhachi’s star player, was absolutely dominant in the midfield against a Wow side that looked overwhelmed by the occasion.
When Sethu FC’s match finally started, it was 1 pm, way past the scheduled time of 11 am. Their opponents were their own junior team based out of Chennai, known as Sethu FA. And the quality difference showed right from the offset. Quick direct passes, Ronaldinho-esque ball control, and bursting pace by the forward three of NV Sandhya, Sandhiya and Sumithra was too much for a hapless Sethu FA defence. Sandhiya and Sumithra, already capped national team players, were constant attacking threats beating defenders with ease, while NV’s rise from the Under-19 stages to the senior team will have Indian national team coach Mayamol Rocky excited.
The match ended 16-1 with the loudest cheer of the match coming when Sethu FA scored their solitary goal of the match. But importantly, the game spoke volumes about this new batch of players developing in Tamil Nadu. The surface didn’t matter for the girls. Neither did the blinding sunlight. These were girls who had crossed barriers – social, economic and political – to reach this stage. They weren’t going to let a little bit of heat or a bad pitch ruin their first match of the season.
In fact, a lot of these girls, including the trio of attackers for Sethu FC, come from Cuddalore where coach S Mariappan’s Indira Gandhi Academy for Sports and Education, has turned into a factory for the state’s best footballers. Excited to learn how he was successful with scouting and training, Asiaville called him on the inaugural day of Tamil Nadu Women’s League.
“There is no point of you coming all the way to Cuddalore right now because we don’t have any ground to play. This entire area is flooded,” he had said to us. The state's (arguably) best football academy didn't have a ground to practice during the rainy season. That said a lot about the challenges faced!
Sethu Derby is ON. Defending IWL champions kick off their campaign! pic.twitter.com/y9ia5H9xdf— Kalpanthu (@KalPanthu) December 19, 2019
Yes, these were Indian national team players in Sethu FC colours. But having seen and battled various conditions, these footballers weren’t going to let a bad ground spoil the start of a tournament they had fought hard to attain. The platform itself was a big blessing for most of these girls who now have a direct route to impress the selectors.
With the Indian Women’s League expanding their wings – with nation-wide qualifying stages (only the best teams from the state league will get to take part in the final round that is IWL) – and the country set to host the Under 17 women’s World Cup in 2020, there will be no dearth of opportunities for these upcoming footballers.
And by virtue was what was on display -- swashbuckling ‘beautiful’ football -- it makes all the more sense for the country’s federation to weave their Indian football ‘revolution’ around these female footballers. The match set the ball rolling for Sethu FC who will face tougher teams within the competition in TN Police and FC Thamizhachis. But considering the plethora of talent in their ranks, they should be able to sail through the Tamil Nadu Women’s League and prepare themselves to once again take on heavyweights Eastern Union and Rising Students in the final round.