Indumathi Kathiresan, 25, the daughter of a labourer in Cuddalore’s main vegetable market, was a good sprinter when she was in school. But her physical education teacher, Thara, saw that her real talents lay in football, and introduced her to coach S. Mariappan.That turned out to be a game-changer for Kathiresan. Mariappan, 67, a former Tamil Nadu State player, not only taught her football, but also helped her turn her life around dramatically.Today she is one of the star players of the Indian women’s football team and a sub-inspector in the Tamil Nadu Police. “My dad earns money carrying sacks of rice and onions in the market,” she says. “My mother used to work too, but now that I have a job, she stays home.”Kathiresan is not the only one. Mariappan has introduced several young women like her, mostly from very poor families, to the beautiful game, and helped them transform their lives. Today, the former girls’ school headmaster runs the Indira Gandhi Academy for Sports and Education in Cuddalore, a small and dusty town 175 km from Chennai and 23 km from Puducherry. The academy has 33 footballer students, all of whom have excelled at the sport.Changing lives“I used to see so many sad faces. Most of the girls did not have a father, and some had neither parent. I wanted to change their lives through football since I am a footballer myself. Seven of the girls now have jobs,” says Mariappan, who is also vice president of the Puducherry Football Association.R. Sandhya does not have a father, and her mother is a small-time farmer. She was a student at the Government Children’s Home, a sort of orphanage hostel in Cuddalore. “Since I did not have a father, I was admitted there,” she says. Then one day, they asked at school if anybody was interested in football. “That’s how it all started,” says Sandhya, now a player on the Indian team.“All 33 girls of the academy have represented the university, and many of them helped Vellore’s Thiruvalluvar University win the national inter-university title three times. And now, 11 of them have played for the country,” says Mariappan.And it’s not just about sport for these young women — they’ve done very well academically, and “some of the girls are postgraduates too,” says Mariappan.
S. Mariappan watches a practice session.
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Springtime for TN It has been an amazing football season for Tamil Nadu. While Chennai City FC clinched the men’s I-League title in Coimbatore on March 9, it was Madurai’s little-known Sethu Football Club that lifted the Indian Women’s League (IWL) title with a shocking 3–1 victory over the strong Manipur Police team in the final in Ludhiana on May 22.But this wasn’t a first for the Tamil Nadu women. Even though Manipur — with their 19 National Championship trophies — are the queens of Indian women’s football, Tamil Nadu had pulled off a coup of sorts in Cuttack early last year by grabbing the Senior National Football title from their hands. And 10 of the players on the Tamil Nadu team were from Sethu FC (SFC).Founded by M. Seeni Mohaideen in 2017, SFC became the first club from Tamil Nadu to play in the IWL — launched in 2016 — last year, and lifted the cup this year. SFC has very quickly grown into a team to reckon with. And the young women from Mariappan’s academy? They’ve not only been an integral part of the club, but also now of the national women’s team. It was Sethu FC captain Kathiresan who played a leading role in Tamil Nadu’s national triumph last year by scoring the opening goal to give her team its stunning 2–1 victory over Manipur; she was adjudged player of the championship. Incidentally, this was the very first time Tamil Nadu had entered the women’s football finals.
The little known Sethu FC team after winning the IWL title.
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangement
What’s behind SFC’s meteoric rise? A lot of credit goes to coach Amrutha Aravind, the former Kerala State star from Kochi, who planned the club’s moves smartly. Aravind, a Kerala State Sports Council coach, kept close tabs on the Hero Gold Cup in Bhubaneswar in February and on the Indian women’s team during the Asia Zone’s Olympic qualification matches in November 2018 and this April. And when the national camp was held in Bhubaneswar earlier this year, Aravind was there. Her closeness to the Indian team’s assistant coach, Chaoba Devi, also helped.In the end, Aravind helped SFC pick up some fine gems for its IWL team. Apart from packing the team with quality Tamil Nadu players, SFC was able to rope in five internationals from Manipur — Indian captain Ashalata Devi, Dangmei Grace, Ratanbala Devi, Asharani Devi and Sweety Devi.Madurai’s revolutionSo what made Madurai turn to women’s football in such a big way? What was the trigger that started the women’s football revolution in Tamil Nadu?“I was appointed Women’s Committee chairman of the Tamil Nadu Football Association in 2014, and I continue to hold that post. We wanted to field a team from Tamil Nadu in the IWL, but since no one came forward, we started a team ourselves and last year, we took part in the IWL for the first time,” says Mohaideen.“Sethu FC also has four men’s clubs and a women’s team in Madurai, and a men’s team and a women’s academy in Chennai.”
Sethu FC players celebrate after scoring a goal in the IWL final against Manipur Police.
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangement
The IWL debut last year became SFC’s classroom, but most importantly, it brought the club into close contact with the country’s finest women players. “We didn’t have much information about women’s football before that. We had some six players from North India, mainly from Maharashtra and Punjab, last year. But when we played in the IWL, we realised that the Manipur players were the ones to look out for,” says Seeni.“This year, we had built up a good rapport with players from other States. We recruited Manipur players. Only one club from a State can qualify for the IWL; this year the Manipur club that our players had played for earlier did not make the cut. They were available, so we spoke to their coaches and got them for SFC.”With virtually half the Indian team on its rolls, SFC, which has its training base in Chennai, began as a strong favourite for the IWL title. But the Manipur Police had one player who could make all the difference: Bala Devi. Entering the match, Bala was the IWL’s highest scorer with 26 goals from six matches and there was nobody even close to rivalling her.
Then, SFC coach Aravind laid out a strategy to deal with Bala. “When we watched them play against Gokulam FC in an earlier game, we noticed that there was not much flow of passes from the wings. We felt we needed to focus only on Bala,” says Aravind, who has been a coach in all three editions of the IWL, each time for a different club.Sweety Devi, SFC’s central defender, was given the job of marking Bala, and she laid a neat trap. “The message to me was, if Bala gets the ball, I should not let her turn towards the goal. That was it,” says the 21-year-old from Imphal. “If she turns, she can do anything she wants, so I did not let her turn, I marked her tightly.” She was so effective that Bala, who had been unstoppable in earlier games, couldn’t even score a single goal.Sweety is a former baseball player who was even selected for the nationals, representing Himachal Pradesh — but with her father Ruhi Kanta being a football coach, she turned to pro football. “We don’t get much support for women’s football, but we all love the sport back home in Manipur,” she says.Another player in great form for SFC was Nepal striker Sabitra Bhandari, whose two goals in the first six minutes had given India a huge headache in the Hero Gold Cup in Bhubaneswar in February. Bhandari was SFC’s top goal-getter in the IWL.And it was Sandhya, with her speed and great ball sense, who walked away with IWL’s Most Valuable Player award.
Sethu FC’s Indumathi Kathiresan (left) and R. Sandhya.
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangement
Might-have-beensAs they watch the ongoing FIFA Women’s World Cup in France (June 7 to July 7), the Indian players may well be thinking that they should have played on football’s biggest stage decades ago.Sitting on the 63rd rung in FIFA’s world rankings and 12th in Asia, the Indian women may not present a very impressive picture, but there was a time when they were among Asia’s best. India was runner-up when it hosted the third edition of the women’s Asian Football Championship in Kozhikode, Kerala, in January 1980.Three years later, India finished second again in the Asian event, this time losing to hosts Thailand in the final in Bangkok. West Bengal’s 19-year-old Shanti Mullick, who had been adjudged best player in the 1980 Kozhikode edition, emerged as top scorer in the 1983 championship.With such a team, India could well have been playing in France today — but since FIFA launched the Women’s World Cup in 1991, India has never qualified, either in the men’s or women’s sections.The climb back up This need not continue. The Indian women are much further up the ladder than their male counterparts — ranked 101st in FIFA’s list — and are thus a lot closer to the World Cup; with a little push, they could work wonders. And they do seem to be getting there, having entered the second round of the Olympic qualification event for the first time.The All India Football Federation (AIFF) is now planning to bid for the 2022 Women’s Asian Cup, which is a qualification event for the 2023 World Cup. Does AIFF believe the women can make it? “Yes, that is the goal… starting with the U-17 Women’s World Cup in India next year,” says Kushal Das, General Secretary, AIFF.But for that to happen, a lot needs to be done. “Women’s football is developing but we want more; we want things to move faster. We went to Spain last year for an exposure tournament; we were there for about 10 days and also played matches with a Spanish club,” says Sweety. “We need more exposure in European countries; to look at their game, find out our capabilities, see where we stand.”Interestingly, it was Tamil Nadu that showed the way in the past as well, when former Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa took the lead to host the eight-nation Jayalalitha Gold Cup in Chennai in April 1994. For the first time, the Indian women were able to see the playing styles of teams from Europe, Latin America and Africa.Many years ago Sepp Blatter, then FIFA President, called India ‘the sleeping giant’ of world football. The women seem eager to get the sleeping giant up and running. And they just might do so.