BHUBANESWAR: After two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Indian Women’s League (IWL) - considered the country’s top women’s professional club competition - is back. And Odisha has all the reasons to cheer.
Not only is the State Capital hosting all the 66 matches at its three venues - Capital Ground, 7th Battalion Ground and the Kalinga Stadium - the highest 60 players in the ongoing national league are from Odisha. Among them, 54 players are members of Odisha Police and Sports Odisha, while the rest are playing in 10 other participating teams. While Odisha Police led by Payari Xaxa made it to the IWL-2022 after winning the recent Odisha Women’s League, Sports Odisha got the entry as the host State team.
Coming from humble backgrounds, most of the players have overcome several hurdles to play football for the State and the country. From captains of both the teams to the youngest players in the squads, the IWL is an important opportunity and all of them are giving their best to bag the top position in the league.
Organised by All Indian Football Federation (AIFF) in collaboration with Odisha government and Football Association of Odisha (FAO), the IWL which began on April 15, will end on May 26.
“We have strong teams to play against but we are confident of our abilities,” said Supriya Routray, the most experienced player in both the teams. She has been playing for the Indian national team since 2008. A member of Odisha Police, 32-year-old Supriya plays as a forward. For 16-year-old Pratima Nayak, the youngest among players of both the teams, IWL is her first opportunity to play a national tournament. A defender, she said she has been getting a chance to interact with many senior players from across the country through IWL.
Coach of the Sports Odisha team Gitanjali Khuntia said Odia girls are getting an opportunity to play against some of the best Indian and international players and it will help them assess strengths and weaknesses. It will enhance their skills, she pointed out. AIFF general secretary Kushal Das said Odisha has been synonymous with women’s football in India for long. “Bhubaneswar has turned into the sporting hub in our country. The State has two teams in this edition, and a number of local players are playing for other clubs as well. Participation of the highest number of women players in the league speaks volumes about the quality of women footballers that the State is producing,” said Das.
The State government, on its part, has been focussing on growth of football like it has been doing 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 being organised in the State to promote women’s football. Women footballers from Odisha are doing well at national level which is why we wanted more of our players to take part in IWL-2022. Both Odisha and other teams have expressed their happiness playing on FIFA standard grounds 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 that this will give a big boost to women’s football in Odisha, he said it will also attract more girls from across the State towards the game.
Sports and Youth Services department in association with FAO has framed a roadmap to train local footballers, both men and women. “We have so far trained 50 talented women footballers of different age groups and groomed them. They have been provided better coaching ecosystem with the help of AIFF technical staff,” said FAO secretary Abhijit Pal.