“Worried about family, not opponents” – Manipur’s Eastern Sporting Union enters IWL semis amidst statewide conflict

Ahmedabad: The inaugural champions of the Indian Women’s League (IWL) are back in the league and have announced their arrival in spectacular fashion.

After finishing fourth in Group B, Eastern Sporting Union defeated last season’s fourth-place finishers Sports Odisha 4-2 on penalties in the 2022-23 IWL Quarterfinals here at the Shahibaug Police Stadium on Tuesday morning.

All of the Eastern Sporting Union squad participating in the IWL, including their coaches and trainers, hail from Manipur – the northeastern state currently embroiled in widespread ethnic conflict.

When the conflict erupted in the state on May 3, 2023, following a five-day internet blackout that began April 28, Eastern Sporting Union was in the middle of their third group stage game against Odisha FC at the TransStadia Arena.

Although they suffered their first defeat of the season with a 4-0 defeat that day, the focus soon shifted to what was happening at home.

“Of course, when the conflict broke out in Manipur, we were mentally confused. Expecting something bad to happen to our family… it wasn’t easy,” Eastern Sporting Union coach Lourembam Ronibala Chanu told The Bridge after the game.

“Some of our players’ homes are located inland in the hills and very close to the affected area. They were very tense as their families had to be evacuated. All I could say to them was ‘kuch nahi hoga (Nothing will happen)’ to keep them motivated,” the coach added somberly.

Try as they might, it was difficult to stay focused. This meant Eastern Sporting Union lost the next game, losing 3-0 to Sethu FC before getting their derailed season back on track with three straight wins.

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“The conflict is not yet completely resolved. Players still worry and still play through. Luckily we were able to get in touch with their families over the phone… It helped a lot to keep them focused,” Chanu said.

“My players are not worried about who they are playing against at the moment. They worry about the safety of their family. There is her spirit. It was hard to come to terms with, but lately they’ve realized that they have to put it behind them for now,” added Chanu, whose family is fortunately far from the conflict zone.

Third semi-final in as many appearances

What makes Eastern Sporting Union’s semifinals even more impressive is the fact that they came together as a team just days before the tournament started.

Most of their players took part in the senior nationals and could only be included in the team in the eleventh hour in Ahmedabad.

“About 10-12 of our players played in the senior team. So we couldn’t have a proper camp before the league started. We only had a few training sessions here, but the coaches were very clear about the line-up they wanted and made it clear to the team very quickly,” said Irom Prameshwori Devi, Eastern Sporting Union captain.

Prameshwori Devi, a former India international, scored the winning penalty and led her team to the 2022-23 IWL semi-finals.

“We were very confident when the penalties started. Our goalkeeper (Elangbam Panthoi Chanu) has performed exceptionally well in this tournament. So we never worried,” Devi said.

This is the Eastern Sporting Union’s third IWL semi-final appearance in as many league appearances.

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After winning the first edition in 2016–17, they took second place at the next edition. Since then, they’ve had a lengthy hiatus before experiencing a resurgence this season.

Prameshwori Devi was also part of the first IWL winning team. “Back then almost all of our players were Indian internationals. They were all from the Eastern Sporting Union before wearing India shirts. “It was a really good season,” Devi recalled.

This time the team has two new players who have joined from other clubs. However, Devi, 34, is hoping to repeat the 2016/17 season with just two games left.

“Obviously, the goal is to return home as champions. “Hopefully our victory will bring a sense of joy to the state after the violence,” Prameshwori Devi signed.

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