In a final, and maybe even a league played to their tunes, Gokulam Kerala FC beat Kickstart FC 5-0 to become the Indian Women’s League champions for the third season in a row. In a dominant performance at the TransStadia that was as much a display of their brilliance as it was an indication of how far behind how their rivals are, Gokulam Kerala’s women are the benchmark for women’s football in India.
Any talk of benchmarks though must begin and end with Sabitra Bhandari, the Nepalese striker without par, who has in this one season taken over any scoring record that she didn’t already own. Bhandari, already the highest scorer in IWL history, surpassed Bala Devi’s record for a single season in the semifinals, and in the final she extended it further (30), into a realm where it might be extremely difficult to overcome.
The manner of that first goal should have served as a warning for everything that was to follow. Gokulam Kerala had taken control of possession right from the start and in the fifth minute Dangmei Grace danced around a static Kickstart FC midfield to release Bhandari into space on the right of the box. The threat of a goal was non-existent, boxed as she was by a defender, but more importantly the angle and the distance.
None of that has ever mattered when ‘Samba’ is on the ball, and she proved it once again. Letting fly from almost the right corner of the box towards the far post. Maibam Linthoingambi’s desperate dive was in vain. Gokulam Kerala had a lead from which they never looked back.
From there, it became a matter of who could best who — within the Gokulam Kerala team themselves. In the 22nd minute, Sandhiya Ranganathan picked up a pass on the Gokulam Kerala right and drove into the box. Once inside she dummied, wrong-footing Linthoi who was expecting a cutback, before blasting through at the near post to double her team’s lead. By the time Kickstart FC had their first shot at goal, Gokulam Kerala were two to the good. And soon it was three, an inadvertent handball in the box gifting Gokulam Kerala a penalty. Indumathi Kathiresan did not miss.
Kickstart FC went into the break three goals down, their morales and egos probably more bruised than anything else. They were the team with an almost unbreakable defence — their six clean sheets the most by any team in the league. And yet, against the irresistible force of Gokulam they had conceded as many goals in 45 minutes as they had in the eight games prior.
Kickstart FC came out for the second half, renewed, and even registered a first shot on target via a Wangkhem Linthoigambi pile driver in the 47th minute. Five minutes after though, Gokulam Kerala scored again, and again Bhandari was at the centre of the action. The striker collected the ball on the left side of the Kickstart FC box, feinted to go one way and with a swift turn of the hips went in another, leaving Dalima Chhibber in her wake. Her cross was perfect, and Sandhiya rose to head it in.
The game had become a procession — attack vs defence — well before the fourth, but from thereon, all pretence of a contest faded away. Roja Devi added a fifth in the 80th minute, as Gokulam Kerala romped to a third title in three seasons.
The AIFF president Kalyan Chaaubey presented the prizes!
Emerging player of the season: Astam Oraon
Best goalkeeper: Maibam Linthoingambi Devi
Highest goalscorer: Sabitra Bhandari
Hero of the League: Indumathi Kathiresan