Summer had arrived in the city of Bhubaneswar. Summer in Bhubaneswar is not for poets to be romantic and write eloquent stuff. It's the time when the sun's fury is out in full flow torturing the minds and bodies of living beings every day. On a recent April summer day in Bhubaneswar, players from Rising Student Club, a team from Cuttack and the current champions of the second edition of Indian Women's League (IWL) were assembled near a practice ground close to the Kalinga Stadium. There were waiting patiently, carrying bags on their shoulders, for a television shoot to start.
IWL – India's premium women's football league was started only in 2016. In the first edition, Manipur's Eastern Sporting Union were crowned champions after prevailing over Rising Student 3-0 in the final. In the second edition, which took place at Shillong, Rising Student had their revenge by beating the defending champions 5-4 on penalties after normal time ended with a scoreline of 1-1. Coached by former India international Shukla Dutta, Rising Student did not have the best of starts in this year's competition. Out of six matches, they won three, lost two and drew one to finish fourth in the group stage. It was in the semi-final that the team up the ante, triumphing over Kangchup Road Young Physical and Sports Association (KRYPHSA) in the penalties before clinching the title against Eastern Sporting Union.
When everything was at place for the shoot to start, the players were told to make their way to the practice ground. They now had to pose for the camera with the trophy and participate in a mock training session. Despite hearing the call clearly, the players were taking their time to come out. It was only when Sradhanjali Samantaray and Gitanjali Khuntia, two key coaches in head coach Dutta's coaching staff, rallied the troops to proceed that the players dropped their bags and showed urgency. Once they were out on the field with a ball, all the reluctance faded away. Maybe, they forgot there was a camera because the intensity was clearly high. The players were in the zone.
Despite making it to the final in the very first year of the tournament, both Eastern Sporting Union and Rising Student were not guaranteed a spot in the second edition. AIFF's preferences were the Indian Super League and I-League clubs for the main tournament. The other teams had to play the qualifying tournament in Kolhapur, Maharashtra. Twelve teams were split into two groups with the top-ranked teams making it to the final round. By virtue of topping their respective groups, Rising Student and Eastern Sporting Union progressed to the final round.
"Our preparations for the IWL started long back. First, we had to play the state league to make it to the qualification round. Our club emerged as winners in state and that's how we qualified for the Kolhapur tournament. There, the competition was stiff and we had no other choice but to finish on top. Our players maintained the winning momentum throughout the tournament and we eventually qualified," Khuntia said to Firstpost.
Players like Pyari Xaxa, Suprava Samal, Supriya Routray, Tikina Samal have been associated with the club for a long time. They have also made their mark by playing for the national team. Apart from the local talent, the squad also boasts of players like Sanju Yadav and Anju Tamang, who played a vital role in Rising Student's impressive IWL campaign. The team had talent in their ranks, but the key part was to make them play as a team, to develop an identity that would become an important factor in the long run.
"After playing the qualifying round in Kolhapur, players had to disperse to play the senior national championships for their respective states. Once that tournament got over, we did not get enough time to prepare for the final round of IWL. But the team's performance did not get affected that much because we played together in the past and players got game time by playing for their states," Khuntia said.
Odisha has been a supply line of talented women footballers for the national team with the likes of Samantaray and Sasmita Malik not only playing for India but also captaining it. Earlier, a major chunk of players were selected in the national team from the senior national championships. When clubs like Rising Student and Eastern Sporting Union came into prominence, selection in the national team depended on how the players performed for the club. These clubs play a major role in identifying the local talent and giving them the opportunity to participate regularly in tournaments.
"The Football Association of Odisha (FAO) regularly conduct senior women's league and age-level inter-district championships and also run certain preparatory camps before tournaments. This is how we scout players. Apart from these, we also have state government-run sports hostels which are present across cities in Odisha. So there's a pipeline running all over Odisha for women's football," Subhasis Behera, CEO of FAO told Firstpost when asked about talent spotting.
It was in one of these inter-district tournaments that the talented Xaxa was spotted. An India international, Xaxa first came into the limelight when she won the 2015 AIFF Emerging Woman Footballer of the Year award. Born in the steel city of Rourkela, Xaxa – pronounced as khakha – played an instrumental role in Rising Student's success in both the editions of IWL. In the first season's qualification round, Xaxa scored as many as 10 goals and added a further four in the final round. In the second edition's final round, Xaxa netted thrice and was also successful with her spot-kicks in the penalties in the semi-final and the final. She also played a starring role in India's 2-0 victory over Malaysia in a friendly, scoring both the goals. Her appetite for goals and her trickery up front makes her one of most exciting talents in the Indian football.
"My interest in football started when I was six. One day, I saw a bunch of boys playing the game and I wanted to play with them. When I picked up the sport, my family members discouraged me from playing. They said girls don't play football. But an uncle of mine convinced my family to change their decision and later I joined a club in Rourkela. I played in inter-district tournaments and that's where I started taking football seriously. When I used to see senior players in the team, I wanted to play like them and that's why I wanted to improve quickly. I wanted to be as good as them," Xaxa said to Firstpost.
Xaxa currently plays as a forward, but that was not where she started. She wanted to play in the midfield because she used to "love running around the ground." However, her coaches believed she'd be a better fit as a striker. In one of the national camps, she was first tested as forward. Initially, she didn't quite like it, but she didn't take much time to adapt. Xaxa now aims to start to regularly for the Indian team. In the U-19 national level, she used to start in every match, but Xaxa is largely used as a second-half substitute in the senior team.
Apart from Xaxa, Rising Student goalkeeper Tikina Samal also played a crucial role in the title-winning campaign. Through the final round, Samal pulled off save after save to keep the team in the match. Both in the semi-final and final, Samal had to face the penalties, but the pressure never got better of her and eventually, her team clinched the title.
By the time Rising Student players finished the shoot and interviews, dusk had settled in Bhubaneswar. It was time for Rising Student players to take a step back and enjoy their time off, now that they achieved their final objective. Rest and recuperation would be in their mind, but, for now, it can wait. A bunch of players walked towards a goalpost and started showing their acrobatic skills. Bodies fell as they attempted bicycle and scissor kicks. Only this time, there were no cameras.
Your guide to the latest cricket World Cup stories, analysis, reports, opinions, live updates and scores on https://www.firstpost.com/firstcricket/series/icc-cricket-world-cup-2019.html. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram or like our Facebook page for updates throughout the ongoing event in England and Wales.
Updated Date: Apr 27, 2018 18:21:50 IST