AIFF Media Team
NEW DELHI: When the Hero Indian Women’s League (IWL) kicks off on Wednesday, April 26, 2023, in Ahmedabad, it will crown off what has already been an eventful few months in women’s football in the country. Through the first four months, National Team players across different age groups have all been part of various competitions and tournaments. This has meant long periods spent in training camps for the privileged few who are part of the Senior, U-20 and U-17 squads.
For those on the outside looking in, the group stage of the 27th Hero Senior Women’s National Football Championships 2022-23 provided quality game-time, and a chance to get on the pitch, get noticed and picked up by clubs looking to bolster squads for the league.
Defending champions Gokulam Kerala will obviously go in as among the teams to watch, but there are new challengers on the block, Odisha FC not just spending big to fill their squad with multiple National Team regulars, but also conducting a long pre-season to ensure the team is built for success.
This, ultimately, must be the goal for many IWL sides, feels Senior Women’s National Team head coach Thomas Dennerby. "A vibrant league, where clubs take charge of training players, keeping them fit, ensuring their well-being is the most integral part of a thriving ecosystem," he says. "Ideally, this should happen through the year and the National Team will only come in during the FIFA windows and at certain times during the off-season to work with the players. This puts the onus on the clubs and creates better players too."
With new regulations regarding wages and the structure of the league itself set to be enforced starting next season, many club owners are already looking ahead and planning a way forward to sustain and grow the game in the country. Mumbai Knights founder Deepu Biswas believes that enforcing the minimum wage will force the clubs’ hand. "If clubs are going to spend money on players then obviously we will also demand that the players stay with the club for longer durations," he says. "This will enable us to demand more tournaments at the state level, or even at the national level where we can give the players game time."
The 2022-23 season will see 16 teams in the fray for the title, the most expansive the league has been in its short history. It provides a unique opportunity for many to stake a claim for next season. The top eight teams from this season will get direct slots in next season’s Hero IWL, which will be played on a home-and-away basis.
For many players, especially those who have been part of the age-group sides, the coming season is also a chance to stake a claim in the Senior Team. Youngsters like Apurna Narzary, Shubhangi Singh, Lynda Kom will be keen to impress in a full-fledged competitive set up.
For many others, the Hero IWL is a chance to reassess, revisit and restore the flame. Odisha FC’s Pyari Xaxa has been sidelined due to injury for the better part of a year. As part of the Odisha squad for the league, this will be her chance to not just get some valuable game-time but also stake a claim for inclusion in the National Team.
For many others, like Gokulam Kerala’s Indumathi Kathiresan and Kickstart FC’s Dalima Chhibber, this is a chance to experience the Hero IWL again, after a gap induced in part due to the pandemic and other commitments. Chhibber is the senior member of a young squad that has many Young Tigresses, while Indumathi joins a formidable unit that will undoubtedly only get better with her pulling the strings in midfield.
For many others, the league is a chance to impress, showcase young talent and also gain valuable experience on the pitch. Debutants HOPS FC, Churchill Brothers, Misaka United, Lords FA Kochi, East Bengal, Celtic Queens, Kahaani FC and Mumbai Knights will hope to shock some regulars and make a play upwards in the league. The two department teams, Sports Odisha and CRPF, feature several young players itching to shine. For Mata Rukmani FC, the league isn’t just an opportunity to get the players on a big stage but also one to shine a light on the good community work they do via football itself.
All of this, of course, leaves the team with the most experience in the league, the most homegrown talent, and the most knockout appearances, looking in. For Eastern Sporting Union, making a comeback to the Hero IWL after missing out in previous seasons, this season will be a chance to prove that Manipur still remains the bastion of the women’s game. The former champions contain India international Elangbam Panthoi Chanu and former India internationals Yumnam Kamala Devi and Irom Prameshwori Devi in their ranks.
The season promises action, competition and talent galore.