ON A HISTORIC DEBUT at the Asian stage, Gokulam Kerala FC lost out on a first half lead, ending up with a 2-1 defeat to host-nation club Amman SC.
The reigning IWL champions made multiple histories when they took to the field in Jordan on Sunday night. They were the first women's side from an Indian club to play in a continental championship. They were also the firs club from Kerala to play in an AFC-organized tournament. And as they took on Amman Sports Club, their aim was to break a winless streak Indian clubs have had in the main stages of top tier AFC competitions since 21st August 1999.
GKFC had assembled one of the strongest sides in the history of Indian women's football, with the likes of Elshaddai Acheampong, Adriana Tirado, Win Theingi Tun joining an already deep contingent that featured a number of Indian national team players.
The Malabarians started the match under pressure as Amman SC sought to establish dominance early on. With a superior midfield they created more chances and in the first 15 minutes GKFC had to weather an intenese storm fuelled by back to back set pieces. But the defence held up, with Dalima Chibber standing out with multiple blocks of dangerous balls. Goalkeeper Aditi Chauhan, perhaps the MVP of the match for the Malabarians, pulled off some amazing saves, including in one-on-one situations.
But just after the half-hour mark, GKFC got a goal against the run of play. It was Aditi, who made a save and immediately released it high for the attack. Elshaddai Acheampong, the Ghanaian forward, sprinted forward leaving her markers behind, and managed to get the ball past an advancing Amman goalkeeper. The Malabarians had a 1-0 lead and held onto it past the break.
But after the break things began to change. Amman made some offensive-minded substitutions that helped them increase the pressure on the GKFC defence. As the game got near the hour mark, the superior stamina of the Amman players started taking over the game, and the Malabarians were visibly having a tougher time keeping up.
The breakthrough for the home team came when they were awarded a penalty about 59 minutes in. Jordanian international Jbarah stepped up to take the spot kick and converted. Not long afterwards, a set piece taken by Alizadeh curled beautifully in the air, leaving Aditi just short of judging its trajectory, and found its way into the net.
Now that Amman SC had a lead, it did not prove to be that hard for them to maintain it till the end of the game. In the last few minutes GKFC had multiple chances, including a free kick that was in the same range as Dalima Chibber's famous goal in the SAFF Women's Championship, but the Indian international could not repeat the feat this time.
Although GKFC have started out with a loss, there are some positives to take away. They have demonstrated, for the first time, that women's clubs from India are very much competitive in a continental stage, which may attract a lot more interest and investment in Indian women's football. Also, they have proven themselves to be capable of getting a positive result at the AFC Women's Club Championship; and if they manage to win any one of their remaining two matches it would be a milestone event for Indian women's football as a whole.
As of now, in the points table, Amman SC sit at the top, followed by tournament favourites Shahdari Sirjan who defeated Uzbek club FC Bunyodkor earlier on Sunday. GKFC's next match is on 10th November, against Sirjan. And on 13th November they take on Bunyodkor.
Whether or not the Malabarians manage to get to the top of the table by beating these two teams, there's still a good opportunity ahead of them to achieve a respectable finish in a de-facto Asian championship tournament.