During the COVID-19 pandemic, a photograph of Indian footballer Indumathi Kathiresan in police uniform, going about her duties in Chennai, went viral. Though reports of strained relationships with her employer would do the rounds each time an India camp or squad list came out without her name on the roster, she continued to represent Tamil Nadu Police and often dominated fixtures thanks to her knack for making things happen.
Cut to present day. Indumathi is back in the national setup and has re-established her vitality to this side as its midfield fulcrum. She has found a new home in Gokulam Kerala FC and inspired the outfit to lift the Indian Women’s League title this season, the side’s third national championship on the trot. She then finished as the joint top-scorer for Tamil Nadu in the Senior Women’s National Football Championship, helping Tamil Nadu lift its second national crown by beating Haryana earlier this week.
“Right now, we toil so hard but haven’t reached the level we deserve to be at. Every other team comes from that level and standard to tournaments. We need to win to even get to that level and stand shoulder to shoulder with the others,” Indumathi told Sportstar on returning to Chennai after the team’s triumph.
For Indumathi and several of the Tamil Nadu women’s team’s Class of 2018, which won the state its maiden senior national title, the cohesiveness was also about getting their due. That champion side was promised a ‘high incentive reward’ by the state government which the players are yet to receive. Another part of the fight was ensuring that financial security - something which allowed Indumathi to give football her all - in the form of employment was available to her colleagues too.
At Chennai Central Railway Station, where an elaborate welcome celebration was organised for the girls on Sunday morning, Indumathi could be spotted with the Senior Nationals trophy on her shoulder, almost like a mace. She looked uncomfortable lugging it around but at the same time, could not seem to let it go.
“Around 2019, when I was not around the national football setup in India, as hard as it was, I knew that I would stay with the game, but I wasn’t sure if I could progress in it. Over the last two years, playing in leagues has slowly given the confidence that I belong here and that I can keep soaring in this sport. In a way, I have struggled somewhere so much and that’s why the rewards of the struggle are coming back to me,” she said.
“Personally, 2023 has been great for me, because every campaign has been successful for me. I last represented Tamil Nadu in 2019 and then I’ve come back into the fold now, so yes, I do want to make up for lost time.
Her career’s resurrection coincides with the All-India Football Federation trying to better its support of the women’s game.
“Give us visibility. Without us asking, how will we get numbers/crowds/popularity? We don’t want much, just put us out there too,” Indumathi said.
A big part of this is things like regular telecast or streaming of matches, which was lacking in the recently concluded IWL season in Ahmedabad.
“This was an inconvenience for us too. For example, when the teams in the second pool took on tougher opponents, some of their games were not streamed for us to watch, analyse and strategise around and sometimes we couldn’t go in person to watch either. In the nationals, it was a good thing that the games were live. This facility was not there before. So, we’ve gone a step ahead in that regard, but we have a long way to go,” she said.
“We are growing in women’s football but it’s plateauing because we’re not doing enough to engage audiences and fans. We’re not able to package this as something they can look forward to.”
Indumathi also hinted at the near-empty stadium for the women’s team’s international friendlies held in Chennai a few months ago.
“Without the support of our fans, we can’t really do much. I have to say, we don’t have the kind of encouragement the men’s team has. People often don’t look forward to watching us play or don’t think we match up in skill level. We also play and we can play just as well. You need to come see us to see what kind of effort we put in. Whatever it is, come see it for yourself and decide,” he added.
Indumathi’s life experiences and the various pauses it has slapped onto her football career have not diminished her speed and skill across the pitch. She is a lively playmaker who is not afraid of risks and takes the game to the opponent. Naturally, she harbours dreams of playing abroad someday, like some of her colleagues already are.
Head coaches of Western United FC Melbourne, Adelaide United FC, Perth SC, ZNK Dinamo Zagreb of Croatia and Marbella FC of Spain are in Kolkata this week to conduct scouting trials. Indumathi’s was a name anticipated to figure in this exercise, but that wasn’t the case. However, she’s not done trying.
“The next thing for me to do in my career is find an opportunity to sign with a club abroad and I hope I can make that happen,” she said.
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