On March 3, Kerala Blasters head coach, Ivan Vukomanovic, led his team in a walk-off to protest what they deemed to be an illegal free-kick taken by Bengaluru FC in the semi-final of the Indian Super League 2023 season.
That incident - one of the most noteworthy moments of the season - cost the Blasters the match, Rs 4 crore in fines and a 10-match ban for the coach. And also some resentment from fans after tendering the demanded "apology" (and avoiding a larger fine).
On June 6, Kerala Blasters announced a "temporary pause" of its women's football team's operations because of the fine incurred by the actions of the men's team.
You read that right: While the club has been punished, the men's team that walked off will (as far as is known) get off unscathed, the coach and team continue to hold their jobs. The women's team has been disbanded, less than a year after it was formed.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that women's football is almost always an exercise in obligation for most stakeholders with financial say. But the Blasters' announcement took indifference - or callousness or hypocrisy, choose your noun - to new depths by making the women's team pay for the actions of the men's team. It was a blow to women's football in India and a blow to women's sport in general.
- Kerala Blasters FC (@KeralaBlasters) June 6, 2023
What made the news worse was the wording of the statement. The club, it said, "deeply regret that we cannot continue our women's team activities until... there is complete clarity on the matter." The use of clarity is ironic here, as the consequences of the walk-off were clear the moment it happened, and duly announced back in March. The only thing unclear is why KBFC thought it was a good idea to penalise the women's team two months later.
A statement like this takes an astonishing amount of either apathy or audacity. The Blasters could have well said that they do not have the resources to fund women's football - a universal reason - and let that be. They may be bigger than most clubs in India (some of whom have a women's team), but financial burden is an understandable reason when it comes to the women's game in India.
However, to state unambiguously that this was due to the financial sanctions imposed by the national federation on the men's team has revealed their bias and disinterest. It's Kerala Blasters 'Football' Club after all. And as Manjapadda, the official fan club of KBFC said, football has no gender.
Disappointed would be an understatement. Pathetic decision from the management to pause operations of the women's team. Hard to believe that the decision was taken after the sanctions imposed on the club. Women's team should never be a checkbox for licensing.#FootballHasNoGender https://t.co/wJB3Ch0Uzn
- Manjappada (@kbfc_manjappada) June 6, 2023
Given India's current cultural climate, with the wrestlers' protest against sexual harassment shining a light on Indian sport's inherent low regard for women, a declaration like this is, at best, tone-deaf.
Put aside the optics of this, the decision does not exactly even pass the logic test.
Running their women's football operation, as Kerala Blasters had told ESPN last year when the team was formed, was a challenge so they had started out on a small scale with minimal resources - young and local players and basic scouting.
The club has had budgets in the past for big-money signings (for the men's team). They have a loyal fan base and full-house stadiums at home.
So, was there no alternative? A pay cut for the actual offenders, frugality in the transfer market, no foreign tour but local matches for the women? Surely there is a way out that does not involve such a drastic backward step.
In the same football-crazy state, Gokulam Kerala run both their men's and women's team with equal opportunity. In fact, they faced a great financial burden themselves when the women's team was stuck in Uzbekistan and unable to play in the AFC Women's Club Championship due to the FIFA ban in India. It's a matter of priority at the end the day.
And it seems women's football isn't really anyone's priority. Since the start of 2022, India's women's footballers have faced:
An ignominious ouster at a home AFC Asian Cup due to a Covid bubble breach
Sacking of an assistant coach and head of scouting for 'sexual misconduct' with an Under-17 team
Silence and lack of action against the alleged sexual offender at a home FIFA U-17 World Cup
A men's team (Sudeva Delhi) wanting to work with the sacked coach because he is innocent until proven guilty. The club eventually backed off.
No chance to play at the Asian club competitions and no compensation.
The IWL held in atrocious conditions... and this is the top-flight league.
Few playing opportunities, which are anyway scheduled to clash with one another.
Football was never a just, forget equal, playing field for women in India despite all the roadmaps and host rights; the Kerala Blasters are the latest to declare this indifference openly. As national goalkeeper Aditi Chauhan tweeted sarcastically, " that's how women's football will develop in India. Horrible!"
So the men's team gets a fine for what they did and the money comes from the women's team budget by shutting it down? Great, that's how women's football will develop in india. Horrible! https://t.co/0Wxh4xM6Ht
- Aditi Chauhan GK ���� (@aditi03chauhan) June 6, 2023
To their credit, most Blasters fans are seeing through this reason.
These same fans had completely backed Vukomanovic and the walkout and stood with the team vocally through it all. Indeed, these fans have constantly elevated Blasters matches with their passion and involvement, which made KBFC's ISL games some of the best in the country and created so much goodwill for the club.
Most of them are now standing with the discarded women's team and calling out the Blasters' administration. Not something the powers that be would have expected, given how they've enjoyed unquestioned support. Perhaps they were even banking on this support to change this situation given the appeal has not worked.
It's very likely, though, that come the new season, the famed yellow sea of Blasters fans will once again be up, the ticket sales will continue to ring in, and the men's team will have all the resources.
The women's team may be back sooner or later; this on-and-off attitude is exactly what clubs like East Bengal have done with their women's team too in the past. But this episode should not go by unnoticed. The women should not have to sacrifice for what the men did, while the men go on to play.
The grim reality is that today's news will be seen as just conceding a corner, when it actually is a spectacular own goal.