Reflections on the Indian Women's League: Improvements Galore, but how do we Build Up on this?

When Odisha FC won 4-0 over Sports Odisha in their first match this season, it did raise a few eyebrows. Sports Odisha were second and fourth in the previous two seasons, hence a 4-0 result was definitely the beginning of something special.

It was Odisha FC’s second IWL season. In their first, they lost out on penalties to Gokulam in the quarters. Thus, a 2-0 win on their second league match this season against Gokulam was time people understood that they do have a case in winning the IWL, which they eventually did, with only 1 draw against Kickstart, 1 loss against Gokulam in the reverse fixture and wins in rest of the matches.

Odisha FC’s team is one which was made with a lot of patience, investment and importantly a long term vision. Credit goes to their head coach Crispin Chhetri who had previously taken Sethu to second position in the 21/22 season and joined OFC 22/23 onwards. His tactical instructions helped the Juggernauts find a great balance between defense and attack. The players knew when to be where, and incoordinations were quite rare to spot.

From the free role given to Burmese attacking mid, and winger at times, Win Theingi Tun, the dropping down of budding striker Lynda Kom, the midfield dominance established by Indumathi Kathiresan, Karthika Angamuthu and Grace Hauhnar, the cheeky cut ins and long range bangers of Pyari Xaxa, all supported by a well positioned backline of sturdy fullbacks Sanju Yadav and Juli Kishan, unpenetrable CBs Astam Oraon and Manisha Panna, who also captains the side, and the well positioned and able goalie Shreya Hooda, it was a well oiled unit who understood each other’s roles which were quite flexible at times.

Gokulam thus had to lose out on their three edition streak of dominance, ending second this time around, and 2 points behind Odisha. They had drawn Kickstart and Sethu. After a bumpy start, they brought Ugandan striker Fazila Ikwaput whose goal contributions (13 in 9 games) were crucial in Gokulam winning rest of their matches. Fazila had also scored a goal against FC Barcelona in 2018 in a match where her then club BIIK Kazygurt won 3-1, only to get defeated 3-0 in the reverse leg.

Gokulam too arranged themselves in a 4-2-3-1. Anju Tamang had the free creative role, wingers Soumya Guguloth and Sandhiya Ranganathan often used to switch their positions, Shilky Devi was an engine in the midfield assuring defensive stability along with Ratanbala Devi. In front of goalie Sowmiya, the defense was led by the seasoned Ashalata Devi, Kenyan Phoeby Okech, Kritina Devi and Asam Roja Devi.

Third placed Kickstart were defeated thrice and played three draws. It was a rather impressive season, but at times they suffered in finishing, although their 22 year old forward Karishma Shirvoikar has been impressive. They were caught off guard on multiple occasions defensively, as they finish the season with a negative goal difference of -2, from scoring 16 and conceding 18.

Guided by Langam Chaoba Devi, who has been appointed the head coach of the Women’s National Team in January, Kickstart have surely maintained their standard of stylish play, as they complete their fourth IWL season.

4th place Sethu FC have been a constant feature in the IWL since its second season of 2017/18. They lost to Eastern Sporting Union in extra time in the semis that season after finishing third in the league phase of 7 teams which played each other only once. Next season they won it all after topping Group-II and beating Manipur Police 3-1 in the final.

Next season they finished second in their group and lost 3-0 to Gokulam in semis, followed by a second place finish in 21/22. They lost only 3 possible points that season, due a loss to Gokulam, who had won all their games. Last season Sethu topped their group but lost out to Kickstart in the quarters. However, this season was comparatively a bit underwhelming.

Forwards Kajol D’Souza and Kaviya have been exceptional but they received little support from the rather rigid system. It was a very defensively able team, conceding 14 goals from 12 games, third best after the 4 and 5 goals conceded by OFC and GKFC, but they failed to commit numbers in attack and relied on a few players to find goals. Maybe a bit more dependability, flexibility and creation from the midfield will help them fare upto their standards next season.

At one position and point below Sethu, HOPS FC have been quite difficult to beat. Their philosophy and formations have been largely different from others. Arranging themselves in a 4-4-2, their attack has only been two players, Gladys Amfobea and Fredrica Torkudzor.

Their pace and physicality were effectively exploited by coach Om Prakash Chhibber (also father of Kickstart FC midfield maestro Dalima Chhibber) and later by Ravi Kumar Punia. The team defended deep and compact and launched effective counters. However, the players around Gladys and Fredrica did not cut it for helping the team finish any higher.

Then stand the disappointments of the season, East Bengal FC and Sports Odisha. A promising start to the season with a 2-0 win over Sports Odisha turned into a nightmare for East Bengal as their next and only point throughout the season came through a draw against Sports Odisha in the return leg. That draw was SO’s second point of the season, which came just after a draw against HOPS.

The season prior, Sports Odisha and East Bengal finished on level points, 2nd and 3rd respectively in Group A. For these two clubs, the format change of the IWL didn’t sit quite well. Instead of 2 groups of 8, this season only saw one table of the 7 best teams, and their player quality and/or poor tactical choices cost them of anything.

East Bengal struggled to string even the basic of passes. Experienced midfielder Promeshwari Devi worked tirelessly but the forward lineup was poor. Shibani Devi was one of the few standout players. Bangladeshi forward Sanjida Akhter was brought in the winter transfer window but she could do little as the problem lied in the poorly positioned defense, an error prone goalie and other midfielders who lost possession easily.

Sports Odisha were lacking in the core fundamentals from the beginning, and suffered from a few injuries too. They failed in anything they wanted to do. But some silver lining would be their immense improvement in the course of the season, especially in the basic skills. They looked lot more confident and able in the later half and played brilliant against HOPS and East Bengal. Being a Odisha Govt. funded project, most likely we can expect significant development and surely a better position next season.

And now that the IWL ends, there arises a few important questions and propositions on what lies ahead in the near and distant future. While this season has been one of, if not the most competitive and best in terms of the quality of football among all seasons, it was achieved only by chopping the number of teams from 2 groups of 8 to only 7 teams in total, others being put into the IWL2 which has recently commenced.

With AIFF’s calendar presentation for the 2024/25 season, it has been noticed that the IWL has been assigned a 6 month window. While nothing has been announced officially, such a large window can hopefully be an indication that there might be more teams taking part next season onwards. Atleast a 10 team IWL with a home-away format would be a welcome move as it will significantly increase the gametime from 12 to 18 games.

IWL title race set for a photo finish as Gokulam Kerala and Odisha FC vie for glory
The IWL Trophy (Courtesy: AIFF Media)

This thus brings the all important question of continuity. After such a competitive IWL, and the next edition not commencing until quite later this year, whether the players will be able to sustain this improvement in their own technique remains doubtful.

Lack of gametime against proper competition is something even the men's teams suffer too, especially the ones which do not take part in Asian competitions. The women players will probably now return to play for their university teams or not play at all for long periods. This will only prove detrimental to their abilities and make them forget things they learnt in these months.

Thus, clubs themselves need to actively arrange friendlies against teams who can match their level, which sadly becomes a challenge financially. Recently, many clubs had to back away from taking part in IWL2 due to the astounding 50000 INR participation fee and the discontinuation of subsidies.

In such an unfavourable ecosystem, player development becomes quite challenging. Thus, not only more teams in the IWL is the need of the hour, but also the AIFF needs to actively invest in Indian Women’s Football which is still in its infancy.

At this stage, such stringent criteria and removal of support will lead to the death of multiple promising careers. Also, instead of hastily finishing the league in 3 months, maybe converting the double legs into four legs (2 home and 2 away, between each other) will not only sustain competition but also give the players adequate gametime.

It is the responsibility of a parent to provide their child with utmost care until they are able to fend for themselves. Can you imagine a 5 year old being thrown out of their house being asked to find a way to survive? Will that child be able to? The same applies for Indian Women’s Football. 

There have been considerable improvements this season, seeing the rise of multiple stars in the midfield and attack, who will soon be knocking on the doors of the National Team. The performances in the recent Turkish Cup have been commendable where India came runners up after losing out to Kosovo by a single goal.

Development of Women’s Football must be prioritised without putting unnecessary burden on the few clubs which are actively trying to promote the sport among women. It is the duty of the federation to accelerate the ecosystem given the women’s team is a lot closer to a World Cup Qualification compared to the men's. 

And also, it is the responsibility for the supporters, to go to stadiums to cheer for their favourite teams, watch the livestreams, interact with players and coaches and be there inspite of the results. MBFT lends its best wishes to the players who gave their all this season, and prays for their good health and prosperity for the years to come.

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