The jump from university football to the professional level can prove daunting, as the Indira Gandhi Academy for Sports and Education team found out in the inaugural edition of the Indian Women’s League.

In their previous avatar as Jeppiyar University, the team finished fifth in IWL 1, managing one win but suffering heavy losses to eventual finalists Eastern Sporting Union and Rising Student FC.

Raring to go one more time, it will once again be an uphill task for the four-time national university champions. Add to that the loss of key players to Sethu FC, the team from Puducherry are likely to find it difficult but the journey till here has been a memorable one.

Extraordinary tale of determination

Subramanian Mariappan, who has been with the core of the team since 2004, reveals how he found the girls post the Boxing Day tsunami that wrecked the shore line of Tamil Nadu, Cuddalore among the places affected.

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“Many of them were left homeless and displaced in the aftermath of the tsunami. We decided to take them in and give them an education,” Mariappan is proud of his 33 ‘daughters’ who live with the retired headmaster and his wife in the same house.

Not only is the team an accomplished one at the university level, many have gone to become post-graduates with the captain, Sumithra becoming an Indian international as well as a Ph.D candidate. Two more, Indumathi Kathiresan and Vinita, are employed with the Tamil Nadu police, and will be turning out in Sethu FC colours this season.

Eleven from the bunch have gone on to represent India at various levels, senior, Under-18 and U-16. Seven are employed with the Tamil Nadu police, five as sub-inspectors of police and two others as constables. They are all graduates of the St. Joseph’s Arts and Sciences College, Cuddalore.

Head coach Amrutha Aravind, herself a Kerala state player from 1997 till 2011, is an AFC A license holder and has been employed with the team since 2017. A former coach with the Kerala State Council, Amrutha says, “They are very hard workers. Last year was the first senior season for many of them, this time, we’ll hope for better.”

The Indira Gandhi Academy team at their base in Puducherry. (Image courtesy: Amrutha Aravind)

Mariappan, who has gathered funds so that the players can showcase their skills at the highest domestic level, says his pension money is what keeps them going, “We have been fortunate enough to receive some assistance. The funds for this league has been partially arranged from my monthly pension of Rs 35,000 and the rest by the other patrons of the academy.”

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Steadily improving

Back in the qualifying round in Kolhapur, Amrutha says that they did reasonably well to finish second in the group. “The one spot on our record was the loss to Rising Student. But they are last year’s finalists and we took the lead, only to throw it away. We made some mistakes which we’ll hope to rectify this time.”

The Indira Gandhi team scored 23 goals in four matches, including a stand-out result, a 5-0 win over neighbouring Sethu FC. That victory was remarkable, considering that Sethu contains some members of the Tamil Nadu women’s team which upset Manipur in the final of the senior women’s national championships recently.

Some members of the team have since crossed over to Sethu but Amrutha says that they have got reinforcements, “Some members of the police only got clearance from their department to play for a Tamil Nadu-based team (Sethu FC). We have roped in six more players to make the team more competitive and increase the squad depth.”

Two each from West Bengal, Goa and Kerala have been included in the squad, as the squad looks to improve on their standing from last season. Mariappan signs off, “Football was a route for these girls to showcase their talents. It was to prove to the world what they’re capable of.” In Shillong over the course of the next 20 days, they will be aiming to do just that.