AIFF Media Team
NEW DELHI: Kickstart FC were dubbed as one of the underdog sides ahead of this season's Hero IWL. But they possibly exceeded the expectations as they made it all the way to the final, where they finished runners-up to Gokulam Kerala FC.
Taking part in the Hero IWL for the third season in a row, the target, according to head coach Langam Chaoba Devi, was to better their solid third-place finish from last season. A 2-0 victory over one of the tournament favourites Odisha FC was a massive statement and made noise across the country. Similarly, the Bengaluru-based side dispatched former champions Sethu FC in the semi-finals with another convincing performance.
Although they fell short to Gokulam Kerala in what turned out to be a one-sided final, Kickstart owner Laxman Bhattarai looks at the bigger picture and has no complaints from her team.
“We, as a team, are really happy with our performance. The girls did fantastic and really enjoyed it,” said a proud Bhattarai. “It was a tournament we were really looking forward to for quite some time. Overall, I think it was a big experience for a lot of youngsters. There were a lot of new teams this time and several emerging players.”
The award for the Emerging Player of the League, in fact, went to Kickstart's 18-year-old Astam Oraon. The Indian captain at the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup, who naturally plays as a full-back, excelled in a new midfield position in the Hero IWL, literally playing a pivotal role in Kickstart's run to the final.
Further sharing his thoughts on the Hero IWL experience in Ahmedabad, Bhattarai said, “After our state championship, we were not sure when the IWL would begin. But then we (all team owners) had a meeting with the AIFF in Delhi and were clarified about the conduct of the tournament, which was eventually managed well in a short span of time.
“Honestly, the only problem was the weather conditions. We've already taken part in lots of other tournaments and we know every tournament is a different experience. Last year we were in Bhubaneswar, and this time in Ahmedabad. The heat was too much and unbearable at times. The afternoon games were very difficult, but at least the mornings were still better,” he said.
“Apart from that, we had no issues. The training facilities were good. Once the tournament got into gear, things were arranged well. So, for me, the overall experience of the Hero IWL was fine, barring the weather," added Bhattarai.
The Hero IWL is set to undergo a major revamp ahead of the new 2023-24 season. According to the decisions taken by the AIFF Executive Committee last month, starting next season, it will be mandatory for the top eight participating teams in the Hero IWL, to have a minimum of 10 Indian players on a fully professional annual contract worth a minimum of Rs 3.2 lakhs. The league will also be played on a home-and-away basis. As a top-eight side this season, Kickstart have qualified for next season's Hero IWL as well, giving Bhattarai plenty of reason to be excited.