Odisha FC owner pushes for holistic growth of women’s football in India

NEW DELHI: If there was an award for game of the season, it is safe to say the Hero Indian Women’s League (IWL) quarterfinal between Odisha FC vs Gokulam Kerala FC would make it to the final round of voting. Pulsating, energetic, and nervy in equal measure, the game was an illustration of what two smoothly operating high quality teams can put together in women’s football. It featured a mere two goals, one by the inimitable Bala Devi, which gave Odisha the lead and an equaliser by Roja Devi right at the edge of halftime.

A host of chances fell either way through the second half, and when the game did go to penalties, the only regret was this wasn’t happening in the final, even if the quality on the pitch deserved it. Odisha lost in the shootout, and while the loss itself was a bitter pill to swallow for a franchise which spent a lot of energy and effort into putting together a brilliant team, it was, at the macro level, an indication of what Indian women’s football could be in years to come.

“I won’t lie, it was deeply disappointing to get knocked out in the quarterfinals,” Odisha FC owner Rohan Sharma says. “But, on the other hand, there is no shame in having lost to Gokulam and pushing them all the way no less. We obviously learnt what it takes to be a team of that calibre.”

The club was one of two Hero Indian Super League franchises — the other being East Bengal — which fielded a team in the Hero IWL. Both finished in the top eight this season and thereby secured automatic qualification for next season’s tournament, which is set to propel the women’s game to newer heights.

“There has been a huge spike in the interest and engagement in women’s football globally,” Odisha FC President Raj Athwal says. “In England, Women’s Super League teams have been filling 70,000 capacity stadiums since the Euros. It speaks a lot towards how the game is growing, and where its future lies.”

One of the key components of the Federation’s strategic roadmap ‘Vision 2047’ is the elevation of women’s football. By 2026 — the period of the first four year strategic plan — the Federation is looking to create a four level league table pyramid in the women’s game, the top of which will be occupied by the Indian Women’s League (featuring 10 teams), followed by the 2nd Division (8 teams).

A competitive multi-tiered league, Sharma hopes will also raise the quality of the players itself. “We’ve seen players play in Croatia, Uzbekistan, Cyprus, Scotland,” he says. “So with the right push, a stronger league and some basic interventions there is no reason we can’t rise higher in the rankings.”

From next season the Federation has also mandated that every team have a minimum 10 Indian players on a fully professional annual contract worth a minimum of Rs 3.2 lakhs. While the announcement has been greeted positively by stakeholders, Sharma and Athwal are cautious in their optimism.

“I think for a club like ours it is not a problem to fulfil those obligations at all,” Sharma says. “I don’t know about others, but we don’t want to lose out on other clubs’ stories and inputs. Obviously, we want players to be well compensated and encouraged to play the game, but we also want to create a vibrant league, with lots of clubs, and an overall burgeoning ecosystem.”

The duo agrees that to grow the women’s game, interventions are necessary, and expansion too. They have seen encouraging signs in the way that the Federation has been investing in the women’s game, and it has, in turn, encouraged their own investment in it. Odisha were one of five clubs with a men’s team that participated in this season’s Hero IWL and while encouraging more to follow suit, he hopes that they won’t do so ‘just to tick a box’.

“I think we need to become more inclusive as a whole,” Sharma says. “Having a women’s team is just one small step. We need to get more women coaches, team staff, and generally make it a more holistic and equitable playing ground. Once we can do that we will see the game flourish on the whole.”

Also ReadAIFF Secretary General presents first ticket of Hero Intercontinental Cup to Odisha Chief Minister

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