The 2018-19 Indian Women's League is set to kick-off on May 5 in Ludhiana with 14 teams contesting for the trophy.
The women's league has seen Manipur-based club Eastern Sporting Union (ESU) and Odisha-based Rising Student's Club (RSC) emerge as champions after winning the first and second season respectively.
Eastern Sporting Union beat the Rising Student's Club in the final to be crowned champions of the six-team inaugural IWL. Last season, seven teams contested the final round and Rising Student's Club beat the Eastern Sporting Union on penalties in the final.
However, Eastern Sporting Union will not be a part of the IWL this year despite making the final two times in a row.
While the teams played a qualifying round in the last two editions to be able to gain entry into the main event, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) gave the final round tickets to the state league winners this year. This means that Eastern Sporting Union and KRYPHSA, two Manipur-based clubs who have done well in women's football, will miss out as Manipur Police team sealed one of the 14 available spots in the final round.
The IWL clubs have found it difficult to fully invest their time and effort into the women's football for a whole year due to the financial difficulties they face. The former champions have both faced issues with funding.
"For us, IWL was a new experience. The support was quite good. I would like to especially thank Tata Trusts, who were our sponsors for the last two seasons. They believed in us. Without their help, we would not have been able to participate," Dr Homen Irengbam, the head of women's football development at ESU, told Goal.
"We are a community-based club and run with donations from club patrons and members. It is really very difficult for a small club like us when the cost of participation comes to around 10-15 lakhs. The budget of the club is around 2.5-3 lakhs per annum," shared Homen, who is also the team doctor and has been working with the club since 2008.
"We buy the players shoes and training materials and we don't pay any of our players. All our players are homegrown. All expenses went to travelling and training. We were about to pull out from the first edition due to a lack of financial support but Tata Trusts gave us a lot of hope."
ESU trains around 56 players in batches but suffers from a high drop-out rate. The financial background of a lot of talented players is poor, which leaves no guarantee about the club's participation in future IWL editions. But for young girls who dream of having a footballing career, the door is open.
"A lot of players, who are very good talents, have been released to join different services. They are from very poor families and whenever they get a chance to support their family and have a better life, we release them. We released 5-6 players after the last IWL and had a depleted team this time around."
Defending champions Rising Student's Club are based in Odisha, a state that has actively held women's football leagues but they are also not without financial troubles.
"We got a last-minute entry. We are preparing a junior team this around. Our main focus is to build a team for the next generation. The focus is not just to be champions, but follow an academy concept," Subhasis Behera, CEO of FA Odisha (FAO), told Goal.
"We are the only state where the women's league is conducted properly, it has been like that for a long time. We have been here since 2011 if my information is correct despite all the financial constraints."
The AIFF provides lodging and food for the IWL clubs but even as clubs demand a longer league, the finances remains a question mark. In May, the 14 participants are set to play a three-week league with matches being held at 8 AM, 11 AM and 3:30 PM IST.
"We are facing financial constraints because we are a small club. I think the IWL should be a long league so that we can have a complete team. But the travel, lodging expenses could be a burden for the clubs. I (also) believe 3 PM kick-offs are not advisable, it is the summer season."
The IWL will miss the talents at Manipur-based clubs like ESU and KRYPHSA. However, defending champions Rising Student's and 13 other teams including Gokulam Kerala will be hoping to deliver a spectacle in Ludhiana that will bring more focus to women's football in India in the coming years.