AIFF Media Team
NEW DELHI: The Indian Women's League is back. Bigger and better, the 2023-24 season is set to see a full revamp of women's football in India. For the first time, the IWL will be played in a double round-robin format on a home-and-away basis.
All the previous six seasons had been held in centralised venues, namely Delhi, Shillong, Ludhiana, Bengaluru, Bhubaneswar and most recently, Ahmedabad in April-May this year. Now, seven teams will battle across the country to be crowned champions of the biggest-ever IWL season, lasting over three months. Beginning on December 8, the league will last until Round 14 on March 24, 2024. All matches will be streamed live on the Indian Football YouTube Channel.
From HOPS FC in Delhi in the north to Gokulam Kerala FC in Kozhikode in the south, from Sethu FC's newfound home on the west coast in Goa to East Bengal in Kolkata, the IWL will span the length and breadth of India.
Gokulam Kerala have won the last three IWL titles, demonstrating utter dominance on each occasion. Unbeaten in the the three seasons, the Malabarians have amassed a total of 27 wins and two draws in 29 games. It goes without saying, that Gokulam are the team to beat.
And Odisha FC almost did that last season in the quarter-final. A 1-1 draw sent the game into penalties, where the Malabarians remained perfect as the newcomers crumbled under pressure, losing 0-3 in the shoot-out. That was the closest any team came to dethroning Gokulam from the helm of Indian women's football.
But Odisha have geared up again. Led by head coach Crispin Chettri, they are perhaps stronger on paper than last season. They've got one of the biggest signings of the season in Myanmar's all-time top-scorer Win Theingi Tun, who has troubled the Blue Tigresses numerous times on the international stage. Last season's MVP of the league for Gokulam, Indumathi Kathiresan, now plays for Odisha.
There may be no Sabitra Bhandari, who netted a mammoth 29 goals last season, in the Gokulam ranks now, but Anthony Andrews will not feel his side are any weaker. They still possess some of the national team's biggest names, while also recruiting a poacher like Veronica Appiah from Ghana, who has already adjusted to life in Gokulam colours, having scored a hat-trick in their sensational 4-3 win over Bangkok FC in the AFC Women's Club Championship last month. Ashalata Devi, Dangmei Grace, Shilky Devi and Sandhiya Ranganathan, to name a few Blue Tigresses stars.
Challenging the two favourites will be last season's finalists Kickstart FC, and 2018-19 champions Sethu FC. While Kickstart will once again be led by their charismatic captain Dalima Chhibber, Sethu are dependent on a host of young talents like Apurna Narzary, Priyangka Devi, Kajol D'Souza and more. Both sides have also roped in foreign players from Nepal. Preeti Rai and Dipa Shahi will don the green of Kickstart, whereas Sethu have retained goalkeeper Anjila Subba and signed defender Gita Rana.
But the team with the youngest talent in store are East Bengal FC, who have added a number of players from the Indian U17 squad which made it to the second round of AFC U17 Women's Asian Cup Qualifiers, including Sulanjana Raul, who has been setting the Calcutta Women's Football League on fire.
Delving into the foreign market for the first time are HOPS FC. One of the surprise packages of last season, the capital side suffered a heartbreaking last-minute loss to Kickstart in the quarter-finals. This time, HOPS will bank their hopes of climbing the Indian women's football ladder higher on the Ghanaian duo of Gladys Amfobea and Fredrica Torkudzor.
Both East Bengal and HOPS impressed on their IWL debuts last season. And time will tell if they can punch above their weight again in their sophomore years. Sports Odisha are another side one cannot sleep on. Fourth in their debut in 2021-22, they were knocked out on penalties in the quarter-finals last season. Playing at home out of the Capital Football Arena and Kalinga Stadium, Sports Odisha will be gunning for more.