Express press service
BHUBANESWAR: After two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Indian Women’s League (IWL) – considered to be the top women’s professional club competition in the country – is back. And Odisha has every reason to rejoice.
Not only does the state capital host all 66 matches across its three venues – Capital Ground, 7th Battalion Ground and Kalinga Stadium – but the top 60 players in the current domestic league come from Odisha. Among them, 54 players are members of Odisha Police and Odisha Sports, while the rest play in 10 other participating teams. As Odisha Police led by Payari Xaxa went to IWL-2022 after winning the recent Odisha Women’s League, Sports Odisha secured entry as the host state team.
Coming from modest backgrounds, most of the players have overcome several hurdles to play football for the state and the country. From the captains of both teams to the teams’ youngest players, the IWL is an important opportunity and everyone is doing their best to clinch the top spot in the league.
Organized by the All Indian Football Federation (AIFF) in collaboration with the Government of Odisha and the Football Association of Odisha (FAO), the IWL which started on April 15 will end on May 26.
“We have strong teams to play against, but we are confident in our abilities,” said Supriya Routray, the more experienced player in both teams. She has been playing for the Indian national team since 2008. A member of the Odisha police force, Supriya, 32, plays as a striker. For Pratima Nayak, 16, the youngest player on both teams, IWL is her first opportunity to play in a national tournament. A defender, she said she had the chance to interact with many senior players from across the country through IWL.
Odisha sports team coach Gitanjali Khuntia said the Odia girls had the opportunity to play against some of the best Indian and international players and it would help them assess their strengths and weaknesses. This will enhance their skills, she stressed. AIFF General Secretary Kushal Das said Odisha has long been synonymous with women’s football in India. “Bhubaneswar has become the sports center of our country. The state has two teams in this edition, and a number of local players also play for other clubs. Having the most female players in the league speaks volumes about the quality of female footballers the state is producing,” Das said.
The state government, for its part, has focused on the growth of football as it has for hockey. Sports and Youth Services Secretary R Vineel Krishna said women’s football has great potential in India, Odisha in particular. “IWL-2022 is held in the state to promote women’s football. Odisha female footballers are doing well domestically, that’s why we wanted more of our female players to participate in IWL-2022. Odisha and other teams have expressed their happiness to play on the standard FIFA pitches here,” he said.
Krishna further informed that Odisha is also one of the host venues for the FIFA Under-17 Women’s World Cup which will be held later this year. Hoping it will give a big boost to women’s football in Odisha, he said it will also attract more girls from across the state to the game.
The Department of Sports and Youth Services, in association with the FAO, has developed a roadmap to train local male and female footballers. “So far, we have trained 50 talented female footballers from different age groups and prepared them. They benefited from a better coaching ecosystem with the help of AIFF technical staff,” said FAO Secretary Abhijit Pal.