The Sethu revolution

Sethu FC has had a meteoric rise. It opened its doors to women only in 2016 and made the IWL semifinals just two years later, capping that with the title this year.

The victorious Sethu team.   -  Special Arrangement

In the land of jigarthanda (a native cool drink), malli poo (jasmine flowers) and the Meenakshi temple, the young girls of a football club established in Madurai harbour World Cup dreams.

Welcome to Sethu FC, the winner of the 2019 Indian Women’s League, the country’s top professional women’s football league.

It’s been a meteoric rise for Sethu, which opened its doors to women only in 2016 and made the IWL semifinals just two years after that.

In May, that rise culminated in a 3-1 win by a squad of women who hail from villages and towns across the length and breadth of Tamil Nadu over Manipur Police, a team from a state that has utterly dominated women’s football in India with 19 Senior Women’s National Football Championship titles.

Against the odds

“Running behind a ball in shorts isn’t an activity for girls.”

That’s what the girls were told when they started out. Their stories all follow that template — of worried parents, no or few resources, and antiquated societal norms.

“When I started playing full time, I would come home sometimes only for a day or two in a month,” says S. Geetanjali, the team’s attacking midfielder with a penchant for headers, from Thiruvallur. “My parents would worry — that their girl is going out by herself so much. Also, football was hardly considered a career, so people would ask if it was even worth letting me go out as much as I did.”

Head coach Amrutha Aravind (in yellow) says she expects players from Sethu’s junior player pool to make it to the playing XI for the World Cup.   -  Special Arrangement

 

Pavithra, a defender from Thiruvarur, remembers her early days playing the game — on an uneven, patchy ground with a determined physical education teacher. “Our teacher put in his own money and readied the school ground for us to play on. People rebuked him, saying he was wasting his resources. I was in class 6. I didn’t understand what about it was wastage,” she says, adding: “He saw I had a talent for the game and convinced my parents to let me play. I went for my first nationals when I was in class 8 and I have represented India thrice. Our coach then told us about IWL and Sethu FC. I then decided to try out for the team.”

Government support

Sethu has cast its net across the state, with many of its players in the current junior and senior squads having come through hostels run by the Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu. The state government and the SDATN have schemes to support sportspersons and also set aside funds to make kits and equipment available to players.

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Kausalya, one of the youngest members in the seniors team and the team’s designated TikTok expert; goalkeeper Archana Arumugam, one of the new signings; and R. Sandhiya, the 2019 IWL most valuable player of the tournament, all came through the SDATN system.

“Our sponsors have been the backbone of everything we do. More importantly, our partnerships with the government, with educational institutions like Lady Doak College in Madurai and Annamalai University help us fulfil our assurances to our players,” says M. Seeni Mohaideen, Sethu’s founder and the chairman of the women’s committee of the Tamil Nadu Football Association. The goal of this arrangement is simple — deepen the talent pool, strengthen the bench and help the girls play.

“We are looking for academy tie-ups and ground tie-ups with the SDATN. We are looking to rope children in early so they can have a dedicated career and skill development as they grow older,” Seeni adds.

Can football pay the bills?

The girls, most hailing from small towns, are faced with two immediate concerns — the risk of injury and the question of employment.

“These are the first things the parents ask us when we scout for new talent,” says development coordinator K. Sakthivel. “Our first hurdle is to show families that this is a career option, that there exists life beyond the world of engineers and doctors. Southern Railways and the Police offer openings, but those have dwindled and cannot keep up with the number of women taking up the sport. So that makes it hard for us to pitch the sport to families.

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“Another concern is injuries and the fear of long-term damages. We have an insurance policy of a few lakhs in place for each player, primarily to assure families and players that if anything were to happen, we will be there to handle it. We also handle the expenses of education, accommodation and food — these three being immediate concerns especially for economically strained families,” he adds.

R. Sandhiya (in white)was the 2019 IWL most valuable player of the tournament.   -  Special Arrangement

 

Head coach Amrutha Aravind welcomes the focus on employability, comparing it to the times she played in. “It won’t be wrong to say that the usual thought process for a female football player is to play for a few years, say, through college and a little beyond, and then opt out when the time comes to move on to a domestic phase in life — to get married and have children. What’s different in the scene now is that there is emphasis placed on career development for the women who choose to walk down this path,” she says.

Sakthivel points out the possibilities that extend beyond the turf — refereeing, sports management, coaching, physiotherapy.

But Malavika, an economics student who wants to join the Police, highlights the downside to these. “Almost everyone oscillates towards a bachelor’s degree in physical education. So, many players who have the potential to play, and play well, or even make it to the national team just finish the degree because the option’s always there, and become P. E. teachers,” she says.

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“We can’t even fall back on academics because that was never the focus. All we know is football, but this game doesn’t have jobs for us. Our families expect salaries and our contribution to the household. The medals, accolades and the recognition don’t pay the bills,” Malavika adds.

Needs of the hour

The IWL win was just the beginning. Seeni firmly believes that while it has given the sport some much-needed attention, the problems in the system won’t solve themselves.

“Once Manipur players, for instance, play the nationals or for the Indian team, they get appointed and get jobs in the government there. That’s not happening enough in Tamil Nadu. There is financial support but it’s not enough. The employment question needs to be handled and we will approach the government about the same,” he says.

In his dual capacity as Thiruvarur district sports officer and coach of the Tamil Nadu women’s football team, M. Muruhuvendan draws attention to another pressing issue — inadequate match practice.

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“We haven’t held state championships in two years. That isn’t ideal. The turfs and stands are important but can wait. These kids need more games to have more match practice and experience and we need to make those available for them,” he adds.

The road ahead

“When you are title winners, you enter the next season with double the expectations. You have that much more to lose and twice the number of people to prove wrong,” says head coach Amrutha Aravind. “Most of our girls come from humble backgrounds, and while they have achieved so much, the pressure can get overwhelming. Our focus is therefore to train while keeping their confidence high.”

The Sethu staff intend to use the off-season to take the sport to the masses. “We want to conduct outreach programmes to take the sport to more children. We will track interested players and see how we can best support them, be it with kits or training. We also want to undertake a coach education programme. We wanted to bring PE teachers together and have a refresher clinic with them. The season will arrive as we wrap all this up and then we will have eyes for nothing else but the trophy,” Sakthivel says.

Sethu captain Indumathi Kathiresan's brilliance on the field has landed her a job with the Tamil Nadu Police. Players say employment is a crucial deciding factor for women who wish to pursue football full time.   -  Special Arrangement

 

“We have a steady regimen. Mornings are dedicated to fitness sessions while evenings are dedicated to time on the field — be it 11-a-side games, friendlies with men’s teams – any kind of match practice. We have recovery sessions every week, which usually involve swimming. So, in a month, we have four aquatic sessions, six to eight gym sessions and evenings spent actually playing the sport,” he adds.

“Each player’s meals are matched to their nutrition requirements and a brief is handed to the caterer. So be it an injury or low iron levels, everything is monitored and counted for,” Sakthivel says.

The off-season is not time off from training, both Aravind and Sakthivel insist. With the next edition of the IWL to train for, members of the squad will train through the year, with the management working on a fixture of friendlies to ensure the girls stay with the regimen and get some match practice along the way.

When Sethu lifted the IWL title in May, six of its members were part of the Indian national team, and Amrutha expects that trend to continue as the FIFA Under-17 World Cup draws close.

“From an abysmal ranking, we made it to 57 in the FIFA standings. With all our issues, we landed the opportunity to host the Under-17 World Cup. Seeni Sir and I are expecting an AFC Cup qualification to happen in the future and I don’t see why we shouldn’t nurse World Cup ambitions. I expect players from our junior player pool to make it to the playing XI for the World Cup. Yes, it will be tough, but it harms no one to hope,” she says.