East Bengal hoping to make a mark in Hero IWL debut

NEW DELHI: There is a myth that permeates Indian Women’s football, about its nascency and lack of history. It is a myth that ignores the many who played this game before it caught the eyeballs of the mainstream, diminishing their achievements and also denying them a rightful place in it. This isn’t limited to players; clubs face it too.

When East Bengal take to the field against defending champions Gokulam Kerala FC in their first game of the Hero IWL 2022-23 season, they will mark their debut in the competition. But to say that they will make a debut in women’s football, would not be right. To learn about the history of East Bengal’s forays into women’s football, perhaps there is no need to look further than their current head coach Sujata Kar.

Kar captained the club to a maiden Kolkata Women’s football league title in 2001 and was there at the same stage 22 years later, in the dugout, when they won it for a second time.

A former India international, Kar is regarded as one of the finest women footballers to have played the game in India. Years before Bala Devi broke new ground by playing for Rangers in Scotland, Kar and her teammate Alpana Seal had a similar opportunity — scouted and asked to go on trial at the German club TSV Crailsheim. While the deal eventually fell through, the experience gained was enough to tell Kar that her home country had talent, if not yet unearthed and unscouted, to succeed at the top levels of the sport.

Over the years, Kar has worked with many women’s clubs in various roles, while also staying true to her ultimate ambition of uplifting the game, by travelling to the remotest corners of West Bengal, villages in Jhargram, Purulia, and West Midnapur, to find talented footballers. India international Sangita Basfore is among those who credit Kar for her foray into the beautiful game.

When East Bengal decided to restart their foray into women’s football, there was only one person they could sensibly turn to. Kar took another road trip, this time to put together a team for the Kanyashree Cup (the new name for the Kolkata Women’s League). Her young team of relative unknowns — Murmu among others was part of the team — won the tournament for only the second time in the club’s history. Not coincidentally, Kar has been there for both, two decades apart.

And if that wasn’t enough, the real reward, as far as Kar was concerned, came soon after. Brilliant performances in the tournament catapulted Mousumi Murmu into the India U-20 squad for the AFC U-20 Asian Cup Qualifiers in Vietnam earlier this year. She made her debut against Singapore on March 7. A second Sulanjana Raul is part of the India U-17 squad that has travelled to Kyrgyzstan for the Women’s U-17 AFC Asian Cup Qualifier Round 1.

“One of the things I wanted to ensure when I took the job was that those girls from the state got a chance to play, to shine, and a platform to gain experiences,” Kar says. “There used to be a time when people would be in awe of the Bengal team, but that time has passed. I want to create opportunities for girls in the state to think of playing football as a career, and be able to sustain themselves.”

In this regard, East Bengal’s foray into the women’s game will play a bigger role than most. The club has made similar attempts before, but a long-term vision and commitment are the needs of the hour. Winning the Kanyashree Cup guaranteed East Bengal a spot in the Hero IWL, and after it was ratified by the League Committee on March 27, the club went into overdrive to start preparations.

“Our preparations have been rushed by most standards,” Kar says, “but it is encouraging that the club will be participating in the competition and no doubt will encourage more investment and sponsorship for the women’s game.”

Kar believes that encouragement for bigger clubs to invest in women’s football will come from ensuring a calendar that guarantees competition.

“The Federation has made some very progressive and historic announcements for women’s football,” she says. “But now the onus is on states, I believe to enforce them and also create calendars that will guarantee that girls play through the year. The more they play, the better they will get, and the more investment that will come in. With more tournaments, perhaps even more investors will be keen to come in and extend a hand to us. And one thing I can guarantee, if they extend one hand, our girls will put out two, to grab the opportunity and prove their mettle.”

In the immediate, East Bengal’s ‘Moshal girls’ will have to prove their mettle with the hardest test imaginable, against the defending champions and formidable opponents Gokulam Kerala. While accepting that this is perhaps the toughest way to begin a maiden IWL campaign, Kar also says that she doesn’t want to pressure the girls into a result. All she asks is that they ‘fight and play 100%’.

“Every club will go into the tournament with different ambitions,” she says. “Some want to win the title, some want to create history, catch eyeballs etc. For me, the aim is to maximise game time for local players and give them the experience of playing on this big stage, against tough opponents. They should learn a lot, and very quickly, from this experience.”

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