Ludhiana: The Indian Women's League (IWL) banner unfurls and players make it to the field at 8 in the morning or 4 in the evening and stand in a horizontal line waving their hands towards the stands - the catch here is that the stands are empty.
All the 30 matches of the group phase of the IWL has been played in front of a sparse crowd. Those few people in the stands were the team reserves or the relatives of the players.
It has been a gloomy sight - 22 players fighting it out on the field with none to cheer and none to clap.
The IWL is the highest level of club level-football in the country. However, the promotion or the conversations around the tournament might not suggest the same. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) barely promoted the tournament before its start - not even on their social media handle.
The IWL began on May 5 with 12 teams and the group stage got over on May 18, from where four teams advanced. The semi-finals took place on May 20 while the final is set to be played on May 22.
From the busy marketplace of Mochpura to the wide road of Civil Lines, Ludhiana did not have a single banner promoting the tournament. From Heritage Inn to Sarovar Portico near Clock Tower, the players were staying in different hotels but people of the city remained unaware of the presence of the best women footballers of the country. The only thing promoting the IWL is a single board at the main gate of the stadium.
This board, at the stadium gate, is the only thing promoting the IWL in Ludhiana.
During the group stage, Vijay Bali, the joint-secretary of Punjab Football Association (PFA), told News18.com, "Akanksha (Chhibber, Coordinator of AIFF Women's Department) and I have been going around schools and colleges urging the kids to come for the semi-finals and final.
"Apart from that, Ludhiana does not have much of a football culture so encouraging people to come to the stadium has been a bit of a problem.
"In other areas like Mahalpur, Phagwara, Hoshiarpur and Gurdaspur, there exists a footballing culture and people come to the ground over there for small events as well," Bali added.
On Monday, Gokulam Kerala FC and Manipur Police SC played out a thrilling semi-final at 8am. All the 22 players in the starting line-up for the match had represented India either in an age-group team or the senior national squad and then there was Bala Devi, who has scored 36 goals in 43 appearances for India's senior team since 2005.
For a match that had such good quality on display, the AIFF and PFA could only manage to get school kids to the stadium.
WHAT HAS GONE WRONG?
The format for this edition was such that only one team from a state could make it to the final round. The pre-tournament qualifiers were held from where 14 teams made it through. At the last moment, two teams pulled out and the tournament ended up being a 12-team affair.
Amidst the one state one team policy, Odisha's Rising Student's FC were the only exception as they joined SAI-STC Cuttack (Odisha state league winners) in the final round as defending champions.
Manipur is known for its good quality of women's football and the state is responsible for providing the national team consistently with good players. At the IWL, only Manipur Police SC is representing the state. All the 12 teams have players from Manipur but many other state teams have not been able to match that standard yet. Also teams like Panjim Footballers and SAI-STC Cuttack have fielded very young teams. These are some factors that has affected the overall quality of football in the tournament this year.
There have been one-sided games like Manipur Police vs Bangalore United FC, where the scoreline read 10-0 in favour of Manipur. There have also been games where there has been a lack of coordinated football. Despite having some good quality teams like Manipur Police, Gokulam Kerala FC and Sethu FC, the overall lack of quality has also impacted the tournament.
Another factor that has affected the tournament is that AIFF decided to hold the tournament in the heat of Ludhiana in May. In the scorching heat during the day, players have needed water breaks in order to keep themselves hydrated. Day games in temperature in excess of 30 degree celsius has led to a downfall in quality and people have not been able to find enough reason to make it to the stadium.
The fact that May is the time of college examinations is another reason to have perhaps contributed to the low attendances at the IWL.
Teams like Hans Women FC from Delhi and Panjim Footballers even came without some of their main players because they had examinations.
"At least three to four of my main players could not come for the IWL because they had their Delhi University exams. In fact two of my players went back before the last match because of their papers," Hans Women FC owner told News18.com.
The IWL has now reached its last stage and the two teams in the final Manipur Police SC and Sethu FC have the country's best players in their ranks. Whether they will be able to draw crowd to the stadium remains to be seen but the chances are bleak.
Be it the lack of organisation of the AIFF, the inability of the PFA to promote the tournament properly or lack of interest in public, the country's best women footballers are playing in front of empty stands and that makes for a sad visual.