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The human cost of FIFA ban: Gokulam Kerala women's team stranded in Tashkent, unable to play AFC Club Championship

Gokulam Kerala FC's women's football team before leaving for the AFC Women’s Club Championship. Gokulam Kerala FC

On Wednesday evening, Gokulam Kerala FC's women's football team will attend a training session in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Except this session won't be like most others -- they will be training for a match they know isn't going to happen. In a tournament they won't be part of, for no fault of their own.

When FIFA suspended the All India Football Federation late on Monday evening, chaos broke out. Concerns were raised, chief amongst which was the hosting of the Under-17 Women's World Cup in October. One bit of collateral damage was forgotten - Gokulam Kerala FC.

23 players are stranded 1500 kilometres away from India in a strange land, their purpose torn from them.

There have been numerous discussions to understand the implications of the FIFA suspension on Indian football, but in Gokulam Kerala's plight you can see the immediate human impact. The suits may carry on deliberating endlessly, but the people really affected are the ones on the ground.

Gokulam landed in Tashkent on Tuesday morning to take part in their second AFC Women's Club Championship. They were greeted by news of the suspension of their national federation. This meant that they were banned from participating in the tournament they had travelled to take part in.

Team manager Kevin Kishore spoke about the confusion in those early moments, and how the team attempted to reconcile with the news. "We held two team meetings over the course of the day, and are still keeping [the players] updated."

The team management were adamant that they wouldn't let the players wallow in the fear of uncertainty - but the problem was they themselves knew very little. There had been no official communication to them from AIFF or AFC, both of whom had been made aware of their travel plans well in advance. They came to know about the ban through media reports in the morning. To allay their worry, they organised a team outing in the city, with the plan being that they would travel to the tournament venue - in another city, Qarshi - the next day.

The next morning, though, they were informed they could not travel. There are three teams in the group playing in Uzbekistan and the winner will move onto the next round in October. "While the other two teams left for Qarshi, we were not given tickets [by the organisers]," says Kevin.

Which is when VP Praveen, the president of the club, told them to immediately arrange for a training ground. "I told them, 'take them to practice'. Forget not going to Qarshi. You are in Tashkent, hire a ground, get practice going.... Only playing will make them forget, take that stress out of them," he says. "We cannot be locked in the hotel, sitting and thinking about what discussions are happening [elsewhere]. The best place for them is the ground."

And so they will train, and train hard, for a match that - as it stands - they are not allowed to take part in.

"See, I can't be selfish and say that our AFC [campaign] is more important than the Indian football federation being cleaned up," says Praveen, "but the thing is we have put lots of money, time, sweat into it. And our children, the players, have also been dreaming of being a part of this."

"They are now very disturbed."

And there's good reason. This continental tournament is one of the few on the footballers' calendars - there's the national league (Indian Women's League), the state league (Kerala Premier League), and this. That's it. All of them are short competitions, but they are actual competitions and the AFC championship is the highest level many of them will ever get a chance to play at. Now, they are sitting around watching that opportunity slip through between their fingers.

What makes it worse, cruel even, is that seven members of this squad were also part of the senior Indian national team who were kicked out of the AFC Asian Cup earlier this year after COVID-19 had wreaked havoc in their camp. To face two such monumental setbacks to your professional career within the space of half a year is...

It's not just the players either, though both Kevin and Praveen would like to keep the focus on them. Gokulam had gone the extra mile in preparation for the tournament.

Instead of the usual video analysis of potential foreign signings, they had visited Ghana, Cameroon and Kenya to recruit the three foreigners in the squad (two Ghanaians, one Kenyan).

Even more significantly, they had prioritised their women's team over their men's - not something you see every day in Indian, even world, football.

"We dropped the Durand Cup, which we had won two years ago, for this," says Praveen. "Rains were bad, there were accommodation issues, the ground conditions were bad - so [they could not have] two teams practicing [simultaneously]. So we thought we would prioritise the AFC - we are representing the country, and we didn't want anything left to chance."

In fact, they had prioritised the continental tournament so much that they had purpose-built their IWL team keeping this in mind.

There were other problems too, even if they appear minor with hindsight. Their home ground was chosen as the venue for the women's KPL (which is ongoing right now - Gokulam will continue competing in it on return), which meant they could train only early in the morning, and that they couldn't get enough practice matches in - because all the other teams were in the KPL.

Right now, though, their main concern is the players' well-being, physical and mental. Hence, the continuous briefings, and the training. They plan to remain in Tashkent till 22 August (their match in Qarshi is on 23 August), hopeful that all the concerned stakeholders can come to an understanding, and the suspension can be lifted.

At which point, another mundane problem arises - who will pay for their stay? "We told them that we are here to play," says Praveen. He has requested AFC to not cancel their fixtures, yet. "So we told them whether it's at their expense or our expense, we'll continue to stay there with our fingers crossed that we'll be playing on 23rd."

The issue here is that visiting teams' expenses are usually met by the host federation, but Praveen says that since AIFF has been suspended, they have a valid concern if AFC will clear those expenses for them. Which is why he insisted that the club would foot all expenses if need be. "We can't leave our players like that, no?"

In desperation, the club has now even written to the Prime Minister. Their plight, though, remains in the background.

Even on Wednesday morning, when the Supreme Court heard lawyers argue on behalf of the AIFF, and the CoA, and the Sports ministry, arguments were raised about how important the hosting of the junior World Cup was, and about how that affected national pride. No one mentioned a word about the women's team stranded miles away from home, riddled with uncertainty ahead of the biggest competition an Indian club footballer gets to play.

Despite all this, Praveen remains hopeful. "So much hard work has gone in... There's somebody above [all the administrative bodies]... God. Certainly [a solution] should come favouring us."