AIFF Media Team
NEW DELHI: After 63 matches across 25 days in two venues in Ahmedabad, Gokulam Kerala FC once again emerged as the champions of the 2022-23 Hero Indian Women's League. It was the Malabarians' third straight title, and they won this one in as dominant fashion as they did the previous two.
They pumped in 16 goals in the first two games – eight in each – and it was only a sign of things to come. Sabitra Bhandari netted nine of those. The Nepal international would go on to decimate defences like no striker had ever done in the history of the league. At the end of the group stage, Gokulam Kerala had scored 53 goals. Sabitra alone had 26.
There was a minor hiccup in their fourth game as Hero IWL debutants Misaka United held the Malabarians to a 0-0 draw, an almost unthinkable upset which ended their 21-game winning run. But that would only fuel them even stronger. Two days later, a 14-1 thrashing of Kahaani FC set a new record for the biggest win in IWL Final Round history. From then on, there was no stopping the Malabarian storm, which went on to engulf Mata Rukmani (9-0) and Mumbai Knights (11-1).
At the centre of the storm was Sabitra. Against Mumbai Knights, she netted seven times, the highest single-game tally of any player this season. However, Gokulam Kerala weren't just about the superstar from Nepal. If you could somehow stop Sabitra, there was no respite down the wings. Dangmei Grace and Sandhiya Ranganathan were devastating in their own way in the Gokulam strike force, well complemented by the young Asem Roja Devi. Indumathi Kathiresan was as efficient as midfield engines are and seemed to be the instigator of almost every Gokulam charge. And not to forget, Loitongbam Ashalata Devi's pin-point long balls, which set off countless attacks.
Sabitra may have ended the season with a record-shattering 29 goals, but that tally perhaps does not include her most essential contribution to Gokulam's golden season – a penalty in the shootout against Odisha FC in the quarter-finals. The Bhubaneswar side were touted as the Malabarians' closest competitors in the Hero IWL title race after making several high-profile signings, and as such, their meeting in the last eight panned out to be the most nail-biting contest of the season.
Odisha held Gokulam, down to ten players, to a 1-1 draw until the end of regulation time, and with the game heading to penalties, it was anybody's game to win. It was also the closest any side came to dethroning the Malabarians off Indian women's football pinnacle. After Ashalata and Indumathi successfully converted, Sabitra stepped up and let out her most passionate roar and fist pump of the campaign after blasting the ball in. The star of the evening was, however, goalkeeper Beatrice Ntiwaa Nketia, who had barely anything to do in the season until that match but pulled off three massive penalty saves.
From then on, coach Anthony Andrew's side only dealt in hammerings. Eastern Sporting Union might have taken a surprise lead in the semi-final, but Indumathi and Sabitra quickly resumed normal service and clinched a 5-1 victory. The final against Kickstart turned out to be the most one-sided summit clash in Hero IWL's history.
Just five minutes in, Sabitra set the tone with a screamer from just outside the edge of the box. It was her last but in no way the least of her 29 strikes of the season. Sandhiya, Indumathi and Roja joined the scoring as it ended 5-0 for the Malabarians.
The Hero IWL is set to undergo a revamp for the next season, and with the league to be played on a home-and-away basis, Gokulam Kerala FC owner VC Praveen believes things will only get more competitive.
"Next season will be interesting. Teams will have home advantage as well, and there can be upsets. We are always focused on quality signings. We have some top national team players in our squad, who have proved this season that our signings were correct. We'll continue to operate the same way next season too," he said.