The Indian Women's League returns after a gap of two years on Friday - two years in which most of India's top women footballers have played a handful of matches, at most. There's a new, slightly expanded format, and though it's hard to predict form given the lack of game time, it's fair to say that defending champions Gokulam Kerala FC are among the favourites. For one, they've played a little more football than their rivals, significantly becoming India's first club to compete at the AFC Women's Club Championship late last year. They've also strengthened their squad and have a new coach who, at 26, adds his vision and confidence to the players' title-winning experience.
Two tournaments in two years (continental and state championship) seems like little time to build a team, though, let alone a champion side. Add to that the fact that a chunk of their core are India internationals who were on national duty for a good part of the last year, including in the weeks leading up to the 2022 IWL as friendlies were announced the month before.
But Gokulam coach Anthony Andrews is confident that they've built a unit that will not only look to win, but also adapt to the club's footballing ethos. They have retained the core of the squad from the AFC Championships and added national team stalwarts Ashalata Devi and Ratanbala Devi. This, Anthony says, is down to planning for the IWL much before the long-delayed season was announced. They had signed players for the Asian tournament keeping in mind the IWL, making sure to retain them for the domestic season. "In fact, our foreigners played the Kerala Women's League too," says Anthony.
They may have won just one out of three matches in the AFC Championship, but the experience and planning for it is what mattered. Not all teams had the same opportunity as GKFC, because no one was really sure when the next IWL would happen. The 2021 season, for instance, was never held.
Most of the Indian players, says Anthony, trained under him in Kozhikode after their AFC Asian Cup campaign ended abruptly, before leaving for national duties again [for the April friendlies in Jordan]. He isn't worried about those who couldn't make the pre-season camp. "They were there in the AFC squad. They know how we run and all. We were constantly in touch with them as well," he says.
The IWL has not been run like a traditional top-flight football league, with its short run-time (the 2022 editions spans just 40 days) but the AIFF has changed the format this year to increase game time. From 12 teams divided in two groups, this year will see each team play the other and the table toppers win the title. From a minimum of five matches to 11 now is a step forward and it makes every win that much more significant.
But the two-year gap means it's hard to predict how teams will plan and the footballers will play.
"The IWL will be different coming after COVID-19... the girls will be motivated playing the league after two years but at the same time there is a lot of gap and many players were struggling for competitive games," he says. "There are many clubs who have NT players who have good experience, there are teams who have foreigners as well. All the clubs have done their homework in the two years and built good teams. We can't underestimate anyone because [many] are champions of their respective states so they have the winning mentality already. It [will be] a very healthy competition after two years."
As defending champions and one of the most established team in the mix, Gokulam will be under the spotlight from the outset. From Anthony's perspective, the holders' gameplan is ready - total football, with each player adapting to different positions and styles.
"The first goal is to win. It's a league format, we do require three points in every match. But at the same time, we will not forget what the philosophy of the club is. I think we have players who are smart, can quickly adapt and implement it. But it also depends on the opponents and how they react to the style of the play and how we react to theirs," he says.
The pressure on him, though, is a different kind. Only 26 years of age, some of his players are actually older than him. "I am fortunate to get this opportunity, I think I am the youngest coach in this league but I have been in the system for a long time. We know the importance of defending the title but I don't take this as pressure, I will take this as a challenge where all of us want to put up a good show and win all games in style," he says.
Gokulam Kerala's biggest strength, Anthony says, is experience. "The players have been part of the national set up, they know how important this competition is. We have good local team players too and have won the league. They know how to deal with pressure and the competitive situation so that I think is key for me."
Experience. Planning. Footballing philosophy. Gokulam Kerala have focussed on the tenets of a successful club for their women's side as well. In the sparse landscape of Indian women's football calendar, the challenges of building a consistent squad and charting a course based on club culture are unique. But Gokulam, who's men's teams are the defending I-League champions, have been up to the task despite the delay and the pandemic. Despite the short league, this long-term philosophy is what could set them apart.