ISL giants to IWL hopefuls - Inside Kerala Blasters' many challenges to start a women's football team

Kerala Blasters

"As one of Asia's biggest clubs, we thought this should be an integral part of the team." Rajah Rizwan, women's team and academy director, Kerala Blasters FC, is clear on why the women's team had to be introduced this season: "This is the natural next step for us, one that makes the club complete."

It had been a long time in planning, the club deliberations hampered by the financial strain they (and every other major football club in the land) found themselves in. But once the call was made, the execution of it was at breakneck speed. One month from the okay, a team of 29 was formed. On their 19th day together, they played their first Kerala Women's League match.

To do this, they had to overcome challenges that every Indian club in women's football faces: it's a world in which the Blasters' brand value (considerably higher than most in India) makes little difference.

The challenges within women's football in India

Rizwan, earlier a key part of the team that set up Gokulam Kerala's juggernaut of a women's side, says, "Technically, it's very difficult to form a women's team." This starts with scouting, where there is no professional system, and continues on to player recruitment where players are hesitant to sign long term deals due to commitments elsewhere (college/work) and then onto the general lack of clarity in the system which makes long-term planning virtually impossible.

Scouting was limited to the few leagues that are televised, and an informal network of coaches and ex-players elsewhere. With other state leagues happening at the same time as the KWL, availability became the most important attribute.

The challenges didn't stop there. Both Rizwan and head coach Shareef Khan explain that most players in India are not professionals (not in terms of attitude, but in the literal definition of the term). This meant double training-cum-conditioning sessions on most of the 18 days of pre-season to bring them up to a minimum level of (match and physical) fitness.

The results, though, are there to see now. Currently second with 19 points in seven matches (6W, 1D), with 54 goals scored and 7 conceded, their only dropped points came against leaders Lords FA (a 4-4 draw). Their best player, Malavika P, is the prototypical Blasters' player - young (she's 19), local (she's from Kasaragod, Kerala) and rather brilliant on the ball (she has ten goals and leads the club charts).

Half the players, like Malavika, are on long-term contracts, but getting that done was a major challenge. It's one that every club faces: the system of one-state, one-team for IWL qualification. What happens, for instance, if the Blasters fail to win the KWL, and thereby fail to qualify for the national league?

And qualifying is not easy. On the face of it they may be the biggest 'name' in the league, but they are what they are - a new, young, team. On the table, they are sandwiched by two teams of immense class.

The opposition

Kochi-based team Lords top the table with an identical match-record as the Blasters. In their seven matches, they have scored - and there is need for a dramatic pause here - 101 goals. Their goal difference stands at +94, double that of the Blasters. Their top-scorers are Myanmar's prolific striker Win Theingi Tun (with 42) and India's playmaker-extraordinaire Indumathi Kathiresan (with 30), both absolute A-listers on a sub-continental level. A couple of weeks ago, they created a new record scoreline for the league with a 33-1 win against Kadathanad Raja FA. Their team physio tweeted after that match: "At many times of the match we actually lost count of who scored and what was the score. It was ridiculous."

This 'ridiculous' team, though, are not even favourites to win the title. That's because in third-place (having played one game less) are the absolute best women's team in India - two-time defending national champions, Gokulam Kerala FC. They've played six, won six, scored 67 and conceded nothing. They are playing with the pain of missing out on the AFC Asian Women's club championship and they look like they have a point to prove. Just ask SBFA Poovar, who lost to the champions 21-0 last week. Their top scorer, Ghana's Vivian Adjei scores goals that make even FIFA stand up and take notice:

Long term issues

Now, as Rizwan asks, "Let's say we win, will the IWL go ahead without two-time winner Gokulam Kerala?"

This puts the theoretical question of long-term planning in sharp relief - not just for the Blasters but any team that wishes to invest in or has already put in money into women's football. How exactly do you come up with a five-year plan (whether technical or commercial) without an assurance of national level exposure? How can you promise participation in AFC tournaments when the IWL itself is not assured?

The long-term solution lies, of course, in a proper revamp of the structure of women's football and an introduction of a more constant league a la the ISL and the I-league, but the Blasters are doing what they can to mitigate it within the existing framework: trying to arrange friendlies and participation in tournaments elsewhere, for instance. Most of their long-term deals are flex-contracts, allowing players to go on loan elsewhere in case the Blasters don't qualify for the national league.

Keeping those challenges in mind, though, the entry of the Blasters into women's football can only be seen as a positive step. Big entities need to take big risks to push things forward. While the women's team has a ways to go to reach the level of connect (in terms of volume and depth) the men's side have with their fans, this is the kind of promising first step that drives hopes and dreams. The more, the bigger, the merrier when it comes to Indian women's football.

P.S. The KWL now has been set up for a brilliant finish, and you can catch the action live here. The second last match of the season will see Gokulam play Lords on October 11. The very last will see Gokulam take on the Blasters two days later. Epic, capital E.