No Promotion, Wrong Timing: Indian Women's League Plays Out in Empty Stadium

Ludhiana: The Indian Women's League (IWL) flag unfurls and players make it to the field at 8(AM) in the morning or 4(PM) in the evening and stand in a horizontal line waving their hands towards the stands - the catch here though is the stands are empty.

Till the end of the group phase of the IWL, the attendance has been zilch. All the 30 matches in the group stage were played with few people in the stands, who were either the reserve players of the squads or the relatives of the players.

It had been a gloomy sight - 22 players fighting it out on the field with none to cheer and none to clap. One little clap in the Guru Nanak Dev Stadium in Ludhiana would echo through the stands - that was the state.

IWL is the highest level of club-level football in India and yet there has hardly been any buzz around it or any promotion. All India Football Federation (AIFF) started talking about the tournament just a few days and had about two posts on social media till the day of the start of the tournament.

As one travels around Ludhiana, there are no banners to be seen that would promote the tournament for the city. There is a sole board at the main gate of the stadium that tells you that the Indian Women's League is happening in the city.

Indian Women's League

This, at the stadium gate, was the sole board promoting the IWL in Ludhiana.

During the group stage of the tournament, Vijay Bali, Punjab Football Association (PFA) joint-secretary, told News18.com, "Akansha (Chhibber, AIFF official) and I have been going around schools and colleges here urging the kids to come for the semi-finals and finals (May 20-22).

"Apart from that, Ludhiana does not have much of a football culture, so getting people for the league has been a bit of an issue," Bali added.

Like Bali had said, they did manage to get a few people to the stadium but not by going to the college. Some 100 school kids were brought to the stadium for the 8am semi-final on Monday and once more, that was the only crowd that saw a thrilling match between Manipur Police SC and Gokulam Kerala FC.

A chunk of Indian national team players played that semi-final and one of the legends of Indian football, Bala Devi, was in action and performed in all her glory but only a scant crowd saw it live.

WHAT HAS GONE WRONG

The format this time was such that only one team from a state could make it to the tournament. Each state held a state league and the winner of that came through.

Rising Students FC and SAI-STC Cuttack were the only exceptions as both teams were from Odisha but that happened because Rising Students were the defending champions.

Manipur is known for its quality of women's football and most of the top players of the country come from that state. While the players did spread themselves into different teams after their respective Manipur teams failed to qualify, the overall quality of the league has suffered.

There have been some extremely one-sided games and some games have seen the ball only being thrown around instead of coordinated, solid football. Such lack of quality hardly manages to create a buzz even though there were teams like Manipur Police, Gokulam Kerala FC and Sethu FC oozing quality on the pitch.

Another factor that has hit the tournament is the fact that AIFF decided to hold the tournament in the heat of Ludhiana in May. That has not only led to the downfall in quality, there has also not been enough reason for the public to throng the open stadium in this heat. It is almost difficult to understand how AIFF chose the venue.

The fact that May is the time of college examinations is another reason to have perhaps contributed to the low attendance at the IWL.

A number of teams at the IWL in fact came without some of their main players because they had exams and that especially happened with Hans Women FC from Delhi.

"At least three to four of my main players could not even come for the IWL because they had their Delhi University fans. In fact two of my players went back before the last match because they had exams," Hans Women FC owner told News18.com.

Even as IWL now awaits only its final, where some of the country's best players are on display, it struggles to get crowd. Be it the incompetency of AIFF, the inability of the PFA to promote it properly or just general lack of interest in public, in the end some of the best women players of India playing in front of empty stands and that makes for a sad visual.