IWL 2023 review: Out of AIFF's focus, footballers put on a show

Of the two Gokulam Kerala celebration pictures provided by the AIFF for the media, this out-of-focus image was one. AIFF

Two teams won their third consecutive league title this week. In England, Pep Guardiola's Manchester City celebrated their coronation, after beating Chelsea, for hours with plenty of pomp and splendour. In India, Gokulam Kerala were afforded a few minutes by the AIFF for a trophy lift and a few cursory photos, before they were ushered away, for... a prize-distribution ceremony for a state-run youth tournament.

Whatever the AIFF President may have tweeted in hollow apology, whatever promises officials have made after a messy, ill-thought-out season, the stark truth of women's football in India was revealed for all to see at the TransStadia ground in Ahmedabad: Women's football is an obligation.

Putting aside the fact that a federation which made grand promises and outlined 25-year plans to restore India as a footballing power were unable to properly organize a 25-day tournament for its best women footballers; IWL 2023 was objectively worse than last year in every aspect, barring the actual football.

And it's the actual football that redeemed this tournament, with India's best footballers as well as some big-name foreigners lighting up the pitch with 262 goals scored across 63 games.

This was IWL 2022-23:

Best Match

There's a big asterisk to this award, simply because, of the 56 group-stage games, only half were broadcast, and with two aired simultaneously, effectively one could only follow 14 group stage games, coupled with the seven knockout stage games.

There are two strong contenders from those that weren't broadcast, and so were seen by no one apart from the few in the stadium:

  • The opening game of the tournament - Sports Odisha letting a 2-0 lead slip against HOPS FC in seven minutes in the second half; before scoring an injury time winner.

  • Misaka United's shock 0-0 draw that ended Gokulam Kerala's 21-game winning streak (the longest in Indian football history). All we know is Misaka's goalkeeper, Nurul Mazlan of Malaysia, put in a superb performance and was adjudged to be the Player of the Match.

From the games that we were able to watch, the quarterfinals saw some thrillers. While Kickstart FC's last-gasp 2-1 win over HOPS earns an honourable mention, the best of them all was when Gokulam Kerala beat Odisha FC on penalties (3-0) after their quarter ended 1-1 in regulation time.

Bala Devi, once (and perhaps still) considered India's best footballer, gave Odisha a shock lead early on, and Odisha held on... till first-half injury time, when Roja Devi equalised. Gokulam's Ranjana Chanu was then sent off early in the second half, but Anthony Andrew's side dominated. Posts were hit by Sabitra Bhandari and Dangmei Grace, but Pyari Xaxa nearly pulled off an upset for Odisha late on, drawing a stellar save from Beatrice Nketia in the Gokulam goal. The penalties were a study in contrasts - Ashalata Devi, Sabitra and Indumathi Kathiseran nailing their penalties, while Anju Tamang, Bala Devi and Xaxa - regulars in the national team - saw Beatrice save all of theirs.

A word of appreciation here for Gokulam's double-IWL winning coach: Anthony Andrews dealt with several high profile departures, including last season's top-scorer Elshaddai Acheampong, Manisha Kalyan to Europe and Dalima Chibber to rivals Kickstart, and put on a campaign that was arguably even more dominating than the last one. That display in the second half of this Odisha match, with 10 players, was a brilliant advert of his tactical nous.

Best Player

Look, the numbers will say that Sabitra Bhandari should win this award, especially after the IWL's all-time top scorer (60 goals) also broke Bala Devi's single-season scoring record (26 goals) and overall record with a scarcely believable 29 goals in 10 games.

The numbers are impressive; but there's a reason Indumathi Kathiseran was adjudged the 'Hero of the League' officially - the 28-year-old playmaker was a delight to watch, her perfectly weighted through balls and delicate chips making a mess of whatever defensive organization there was in front of her.

The AIFF does not provide assist statistics (can you sense the trend?) but you can bet the Tamil Nadu stalwart topped the charts, as well as being the second-best Indian goal-scorer in the league after Kajol D'souza of Sethu FC. After not being allowed to feature in the IWL for the last two seasons due to her employers (TN Police), Indumathi has made quite the stunning return to Indian league football.

Best Young Player

A rare positive from this tournament was the performance of India's youngsters, with plenty of the nation's 2022 U-17 World Cup squad featuring regularly and performing well. Hemam Shilky Devi was a mainstay in Gokulam's midfield - dictating and breaking up play from deep in that composed style that will anchor India's teams for years to come. However, it was her captain from World Cup, Astam Oraon, who was a revelation. Chaoba Devi, the Kickstart FC boss, moved her into a midfield role, and the youngster from Jharkhand thrived.

Blessed with an eye for a pass, Astam's positional nous was impressive as was her strength - she was bullying opponents larger than her in the middle of the park, snapping into tackles and being a large part of the reason Kickstart were so defensively impressive - apart from the final of course.

Best Surprise

Kickstart FC. Well, not really that much of a surprise - they did finish third in last season's IWL after all. However, with Odisha FC also in the fray after making some big-name signings, coupled with Sethu FC's might, Kickstart's progression to the final of the tournament was laudable. Chaoba Devi did have some stars of her own, with Dalima Chhibber in defence, Linthoi Devi in goal and Kioko Elizabeth in attack. The side from Bengaluru were wonderfully organized throughout, conceding only three goals in 9 games prior to the final (even Gokulam conceded seven).

Their semifinal win over Sethu was a masterclass - two goals after which Kickstart shut up shop and did not afford their opponents a sniff. The final, while disappointing, was perhaps a reminder that if Chaoba Devi is backed with the requisite signings, she can lead a team to great things.

An honourable mention also goes to Misaka United - who also had a stellar defensive tournament, conceding only twice, but had the misfortune of only having two of their games be broadcast.

Best Goal

There were some fine candidates - 17-year-old Lavanya Upadhyay of Misaka United with a peach against East Bengal, and also Yumnam Kamala Devi's moment of pure genius for ESU in their semifinal loss against Gokulam, lobbing Beatrice from yards out.

However, there is little to argue against Sabitra Bhandari's opening goal in the final - not just the occasion, but the manner of it was spectacular. There are very few defenders or goalkeepers in the world who would have stopped her arcing missile from the edge of the box.

Most unfortunate stat

Mata Rukmani have a heart-warming story, but they were unable to score a single goal in the tournament. Alongside Kahaani FC, MRFC were also staring at going the entire tournament without a point, before a 0-0 in the final game between the two sides saw them pick up their first point of the season.

Biggest disappointment

The organization of the tournament. The conditions, the scheduling, the last-minute nature of things, the lack of information, the broadcast, the venues, the accommodations, the food - this was a veritable Murphy's law of a tournament that will hopefully never be repeated.

Mildest disappointment

Kamala Devi's U-turn on her retirement had plenty excited, but the veteran only managed a solitary goal for Eastern Sporting Union in the group stage, with her manager Ronibala Chanu benching her for a crucial last group-stage against Lords FA, which ESU won 3-2 after being 0-2 down within 20 minutes.

*That goal* against Gokulam in the semifinal was almost worth it, though.

Most rage-inducing moment of the year

It was clear to see the players were struggling to deal with the conditions, with many wilting under the Ahmedabad sun. Injuries were a regular feature of the tournament, despite the cooling breaks. To cap off the mess, after losing a gruelling semifinal to Kickstart, Sethu FC player Gladys Zonunsangi was taken away in an ambulance after being unwell.

India's women footballers have been crying out for more, regular football - and the AIFF have acquiesced - aiming for a four-tier pyramid next year with home and away games in the IWL. Yet, as in Gladys' case, if the football threatens the very lives of the players, what was the point of the whole exercise?