Ladies Of The Fields: Will The Indian Women’s League Find Its Rightful Place?

When Eastern Sporting Union reached the final of the inaugural Indian Women’s League (IWL) last year in New Delhi, the team was left in a quandary. The club’s hotel, booked by the All India Football Federation, was reserved only till before the final. Having exceeded the federation’s expectations, ESU was left with the option of disturbing its squad by moving to cheaper accommodation or spending out of its pocket to stay at the same place. The Manipur-based club chose the latter; its financial worries probably eased by the prize money of 10 lakh rupees [$15,000] it subsequently earned for winning the tournament.

ESU has not had to rely on the AIFF’s assistance this time around. For the final tournament in Shillong which started on March 25, the defending champion and Odisha’s Rising Student (last season’s runners-up) are the beneficiaries of accommodation arranged by Meghalaya Football Association, on account of their direct qualification for the final round. The rest of the teams, though, are on their own. The AIFF did arrange food and accommodation for the qualifying round in Kolhapur last year—which the participants found to be of a better standard—but the financial implication for clubs in the final round is significant.

Sethu FC was among the four beneficiaries of the pullout by I-League, barring Gokulam Kerala FC, and Indian Super League (ISL) teams from the tournament. The withdrawal was a repeat of last year when only Aizawl FC and Pune City FC agreed to participate in the IWL. The original idea was to have ten teams in the inaugural competition with the AIFF believing that it could get participation from at least eight ISL and I-League sides. Eventually, though, just six teams signed up, with teams which had failed to qualify earlier, added on to make up that number.

This year, there are seven sides in the final tournament with four of them being debutants. Both of last year’s semi-finalists, Alakhpura and Pune City, are not participating. One of the new teams, Sethu FC, could have been a part of the league in its inaugural edition, but a late attempt to register the side as Tamil Nadu XI was quashed by the AIFF as only private clubs are allowed to participate.

So the Madurai-based club made its debut appearance this year, with a budget of about 15 lakh rupees [$23,000] - the figure shared by Sethu’s chief financer and head of the women’s football committee at the Tamil Nadu Football Association (TNFA), M. Seeni Mohideen. He also arranged a preparatory camp in Shillong two weeks ahead of the final tournament.

The cost of running a team can go up to 20 lakh rupees [$30,000]. Sethu FC will feature 12 players from the Tamil Nadu state team - which registered a historic win at the women’s Senior National Championships last year - and two players from Bangladesh. ESU will have to do without five of its players after learning that they will not be released from duty by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). To make up for their absence, unlike last year, the defending champion has some non-Manipuri presence in its squad, with one of its recruits arriving from Kolkata. ESU is coached by former national team skipper Oinam Bembem Devi, who played for the team in the last IWL season.

As the AIFF has made the selection of under-18 and under-16 girls mandatory for each side, the financial commitment for a team has only grown on account of an enlarged squad. ESU has been fortunate to find a sponsor in Tata Trusts, alongside other voluntary donors. But financially, it remains a tight, tough affair. Clubs would like the AIFF to provide subsidies, but none are forthcoming as of now.

The financial implication has been a prime factor in the pullouts. Aizawl FC did not return to the IWL this year; in spite of considerable local participation by women in its academy, the burden on the team’s finances was too heavy.

“There is no subsidy, no grant from the AIFF,” says Robert Royte, the club president. “The federation should at least fund the travel and daily allowance. Women’s football is a new challenge, and there is huge expenditure involved. That is why we could not afford it.”

Nor could the ISL and I-League teams it seems, despite their larger budgets. But there is more to the story than meets the eye.

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