IWL 2023: Gokulam Kerala complete inevitable hat-trick of titles in style

Sabitra Bhandari celebrates with her Gokulam Kerala teammates after opening the scoring in the final of the 2023 IWL against Kickstart FC. Gokulam Kerala

Indian football's had an inevitable look about it this season.

ATK Mohun Bagan won the 2022-23 Indian Super League. The AIFF then produced a nightmare-ish 2023 Indian Women's League, plagued by apathy, incompetence, and mismanagement. Gokulam Kerala followed it up by winning the 2023 IWL, their third successive league title, scoring 64 goals in 10 unbeaten games this term.

They defeated Kickstart FC 5-0 in a lopsided final. No surprises there. Langam Chaoba Devi, coach of Kickstart FC knows all too well what it's like to finish second to the juggernauts of Indian women's football, having been runners-up to Gokulam with KRYPHSA in the 2019-20 IWL season. Dangmei Grace and Ashalata Devi, now of Gokulam, were once her wards at the Manipuri outfit.

So Chaoba Devi would not have been surprised when Grace popped up to intercept a ball in the 5th minute and start a transition. The quick measured pass down the right channel to Sabitra Bhandari? She'd witnessed it many times before. Kickstart FC were prepared for this - their defensive nous against Sethu FC in the semifinal was a joy to watch in a 2-0 win. Wangkhem Linthoingambi Devi, Kickstart's best defender in the semifinal, had Sabitra covered. No danger here, all going according to script.

And then Sabitra decided to rip Chaoba Devi's plans up to shreds.

She was on the extreme right on the edge of the box, and decided to unleash a thunderbolt that arced over Maibam Linthoingambi Devi in the Kickstart goal into the opposite top corner. Despite scoring 28 goals prior this season, there was nothing inevitable about that. Sabitra had lit up the final, and in doing so, had probably ended it less than 300 seconds in. Kickstart had pedigree of their own in the attacking sense - their front three had scored 20 goals between them - but with Ashalata Devi, Ranjana Chanu, Michel Castanha and Kritina Devi stepping up a gear in the Gokulam defence, they looked bereft of ideas, with Kioko Elizabeth left visibly frustrated.

What answer could Kickstart have, when Gokulam simply decided to ramp up their levels? Sandhya Ranganathan, on paper is a winger, but after a spell as a centre-forward for the national team, has sharpened her finishing. In the 22nd minute of the game, she turned Papki Devi like the best centre-forwards do, ran into the box and produced a shimmy worthy of the best wingers - wrongfooting her marker and Linthoi Maibam in goal, before hammering a low drive from the narrowest of angles.

Gokulam goal? Inevitable. The manner? Not so much.

It didn't help the Bengaluru side's case that their captain and leader, Dalima Chhibber was at panic stations for most of the game. On the other hand, Indumathi Kathiseran, was calmness personified and took advantage in the 35th minute, a clever chip finding Dalima blocking it off with her arm and thus earning a penalty. Linthoi Maibam knew what Indumathi does at penalties - goes low to her left, like she did in the semifinal. The Kickstart keeper guessed correctly, but when the ball was placed in the corner-iest of corners, there was no denying Indumathi from earning her ninth goal of the season - second only to Kajol D'souza amongst Indian goal-scorers.

Kickstart were left befuddled, with Maibam personifying it with a blank stare into the sun after the penalty. The half-time whistle was sweet relief when it did come, as GKFC eased off. There were fleeting hopes of a comeback, as Kickstart started the second half well, fashioning a couple of chances. After all, this was a side that had character in abundance, as their last-gasp winner in the quarterfinal win over HOPS FC showed. Yet, Gokulam were in no mood to loosen their vice-like grip on this game.

Seven minutes into the second period, Sabitra channeled every bit of her nickname, 'Samba' and turned Dalima on a dime, before sending in a cross for Sandhya in acres of space in the box. A glancing downward header from the centre-forward/winger and GKFC had their fourth. Gokulam finally eased off, with Sabitra even deciding to spurn a few presentable opportunities. Yet, Nepal's most brilliant diamond had no trouble creating chances for her teammates, tormenting Dalima with ease. The 80th minute saw her turn on the afterburners down the right, cutting the ball for Roja Devi to make it 5-0 and complete the rout.

The final whistle was a formality, the title an inevitability. Yet, Gokulam Kerala decided that after a little over a month of bad food, terrible organization and downright threatening conditions, they had it in them to produce champagne football.

Gokulam Kerala deserved every bit of their third IWL title, but does Indian football deserve a team like Gokulam after failing their footballers at every opportunity?

Perhaps that is the inevitability that the AIFF should change, just like Gokulam did all throughout this final.