Indian Women's League takes baby steps on rocky turf

Sethu FC's Amsavalli takes on her marker in the defending champions' opener against FC Kolhapur City. AIFF

"Poof!" A puff of black dust rises from the turf of the Bangalore Football Stadium (BFS) as Karthika plays a through ball to Amsavalli, central midfielder and right winger combining down the inside right channel to start the scoring. It was the first of five goals Sethu FC scored against FC Kolhapur City under the blazing sun of a harsh Bangalore 'winter', as they opened their defence of the Indian Women's League (IWL).

This, on the first day of the 2020 season, happened five days before Scottish giants Rangers FC announced they would be signing India's best active women's footballer, Ngangom Bala Devi. As India's sporting fraternity celebrates what is genuinely a wonderful achievement, it's that puff of dust that puts it in real context.

Talking on the sidelines of the IWL, several coaches have sighed, "the pitch is too hard." Even for the layperson, it's evident on first look. The artificial grass has worn out, vast swathes of the pitch more black than green. The puffs of dust are little pellets of the vulcanized rubber mat that forms the base of the pitch coming loose every time the ball bounces on it, every time a boot steps a touch too forcefully on it.

When questioned about the state of the pitch on the eve of the tournament, the Karnataka State Football Association said that the tender has been finalized, the order has been placed, that it was just a matter of time before the pitch got re-laid.

When asked why India's premier women's football league couldn't be held back so as to enable a new pitch to be laid first, Sunando Dhar, CEO, Leagues, All India Football Federation, said "I don't think the pitch is in an unplayable condition, local leagues are happening, Bengaluru FC is practicing..."

However, Bengaluru FC confirmed that none of their teams practice at the BFS.

The league, meanwhile, extends from 24 January to 14 February, two matches a day, kickoffs at 12 PM and 3 PM. The middle of the day. When asked about the timings, Dhar said, "last time we had it in Punjab in April or May, that way Bangalore is much better." Relatively. This January, Bengaluru temperatures have been consistently at 30+ degrees during the day, without a shred of cloud cover and hardly a whiff of wind. Even under the shade, in the stands, it has been tough.

Talking to ESPN a day before she was awarded the Padma Shri, Oinam Bembem Devi, present at the IWL on the invitation of the AIFF, played down the harsh conditions at the BFS. She suggested that players had to adjust to different climactic conditions, different altitudes even. She talked about how tough it was in Ludhiana last year, but as she spoke, the tact thawed a touch and a bit of the old sportswoman came out. "It's a little bit difficult on the knees," she said about the turf, before adding with a wistful shake of the head, "this looks like it's just rubber."

The pace of the matches has been a touch slow, understandably so, with most teams tiring well before the second water break. (FIFA mandates a break every thirty minutes when temperatures exceed 30°C). Some of the teams saw a few of their players arrive the day before the league started (many of them were involved in the recently concluded Khelo India Games and inter-University competitions), and you can almost see their lack of chemistry improving in real time.

Despite all this, there have been some fantastic passages of play.

In that first match of theirs, Sethu forensically deconstructed Kolhapur's low block, Karthika pulling the strings in the centre, using runners from midfield to bypass their opponents' two banks of defenders. After a slow start in their first game, a 1-0 win against Sreebhumi FC, Gokulam FC's galacticos hammered in ten against Kenkre in their second, the goals coming from everyone and everywhere.

All 12 teams have shown glimpses of interesting football over the past week. Runners-from-deep, inside forwards occupying unconventional spaces, teams playing out of the back, there is a refreshing feel of tactical freedom to some of the matches. Not many teams have physically dominant strikers, so the ball spends a lot more time on the ground; the through balls are a lot more aesthetically pleasing -- the art of running off the shoulder of the last defender revived.

There are small wins off the field as well.

On the day she was in Bengaluru, Bembem Devi had told PTI that she used to change her name to Bobo and Amko to be able to play with boys. The players of today do not need to do that, not nearly as much. Clubs, both small and big, are popping up across the board. I-League clubs like Gokulam FC and Churchill Brothers, and ISL clubs like FC Goa are getting in on the act. Playing in the IWL is a tangible, achievable goal.

Competition has improved as well. For a team to qualify to the IWL, they need to win their respective state leagues. In Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, for example, that means beating six other clubs. India's national team coach, Maymol Rocky, noted during the press conference that she was happy the girls were getting to play so many matches. It's quite another thing that neither she nor the coach of the U-17 team Thomas Dennerby (India host the U-17 World Cup in November) have turned up to watch the matches to scout potential talent during the opening week.

There may be no television coverage, and the timings may mean that crowds are sparse, but you can see the matches live on the national team's Facebook page. The coverage is decent.

All these may be baby steps, but they are actual positives.

It is, though, not nearly enough. There's so much more to do before laurels can be rested upon.

The players, meanwhile, will keep at it. The sun burning down on their heads, the pitch crumbling beneath their feet, they will pull their socks up, lace their boots up, put their head down and get on with it. That's what the women of this nation do.