CHENNAI: What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Madurai? There may be a lot of answers to that one, but football is unlikely to be on the list.
Yet, on the day Tamil Nadu ascended to the very top of Indian women’s football, it is a Madurai club that’s beaming the brightest.
Ten of the TN team, who emerged champions in the 23rd National Women’s Football Championships by beating Manipur 2-1, come from Sethu FC, a little-known club from Madurai. They became the first TN club to participate in the Indian Women’s League last year.
“The girls are all from poor families, many of them daughters of farmers,” said Seeni Mohideen, who bankrolls the team. “We send these girls to the Annamalai University in Chidambaram to study on a scholarship. They cannot afford to study otherwise.”
On Wednesday, these girls defeated a team full of national team players. TN’s women footballers have their very own Leicester City moment!
It was a game that looked like foregone conclusion on paper! Tamil Nadu, playing their first ever final of National Women’s Football Championships, a team that had confounded everyone on getting this far, against Manipur — chock-full of India players who’ve dominated the women’s game in the country for years and led by current national skipper Bala Devi. Yet, by the time the final whistle had sounded, it was the women from Tamil Nadu who were dancing on the pitch.
The match ended 2-1 and Tamil Nadu lifted the title, but even more impressive than that result was the way in which it was achieved. The National Women’s Championships have only been won by a handful of teams in its 23-year-history. Manipur have won it 18 times, finishing in the final on three other occasions. Bengal have won it a couple of times while Odisha and Railways have emerged champions once each. In Cuttack, Tamil Nadu beat three of the four past champions en route the title — Odisha in the quarters, a 4-1 demolition of Bengal in the semifinal and a convincing 2-1 victory over Manipur in the final.
The latter match, in particular, proved that this was no fluke — Tamil Nadu took the lead in just the second minute and finished the first-half with a two-goal advantage.
The opener came when Indumathi caught the Manipur defence napping and drilled in her tenth goal of the campaign. Then, as halftime approached, Indhrani converted Indumathi’s ball into the box. India international Ratanbala Devi pulled one back for Manipur, but it ended up being merely a consolation.
“We completely outplayed them,” the team’s coach M Muruhuvendan told Express from Cuttack. “We could have scored a couple more. There were sitters that we missed. Even though we were facing a team like Manipur in the final, the girls were not afraid.”
As news of the team’s victory filtered through, celebrations were sparking out in faraway Madurai. Ten of the 20 girls who had gone to Cuttack were part of Sethu FC who had participated in the Indian Women’s League last year. All ten, including captain M Nandhini, come from families who are not financially well-off and attend Annamalai University on scholarships.
“Playing the IWL was a great thing for the girls,” said M Seeni Mohideen, who bankrolls Sethu FC. “They have improved so much over the past few months. And all these girls, they come from a humble family background. The captain Nandini, she had lost her father a few years ago. Most of the girls come from farming families who cannot afford to buy them equipment or provide the right facilities for them. That makes this victory even more impressive!”