The sixth season of the Hero Indian Women’s League (IWL) is set to kick off on 26th April 2023 in Ahmedabad. Sixteen clubs, who qualified by virtue of winning their respective state leagues, have been drawn into two groups of eight. The top four teams from each group will feature in the knockout stage, featuring the quarter-finals, semi-finals, and a grand final.
Ahead of the openers between Misaka United and Mata Rukmani FC, and between Sports Odisha and HOPS FC, let’s have a look at the biggest local names to watch out for in the league. (Disclaimer – Odisha FC Women mean some serious business, as you are about to find out.)
Bala Devi (Odisha FC Women)
In January 2020, Bala Devi became one of the first female footballers from the country to sign a contract abroad as she was roped in by Scottish outfit Rangers Women’s FC on an eighteen-month-long deal. She went on to score 2 goals for the club as her tenure was cut short by an unfortunate ankle injury which ruled her out for the rest of the season.
She has since signed for Odisha FC Women in what seems to be a superteam – the Kalinga Warriors have bolstered their squad with multiple well-known names in the women’s footballing circuit in the country. And Bala Devi is the most potent attacking weapon in their arsenal.
With a staggering tally of 52 goals in 58 games for the National Team, Bala Devi has been around for much longer than the IWL itself. She has donned the colours of a different club in every IWL season as her numbers have improved with every passing year. At 33, she may not be as agile as she was a decade ago, but her ability to pounce upon a chance in and around the box remains unquestionable. With the talent in the positions around her, 2023 may witness Bala Devi at her blistering best.
Astam Oraon (Kickstart FC)
From the old guard now to the exuberance of the new – Astam Oraon led the Indian side at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Bhubaneshwar. Despite the side shipping 16 goals across 3 games against world beaters Brazil, the USA, and Morocco, Oraon proved to be one of the brightest sparks from the side. As one of the hottest properties in the game, Oraon was roped in by Kickstart FC ahead of the IWL 2023 season.
Kickstart have won four consecutive league titles in the Karnataka Women’s League from 2019-20 to 2022-23. With the local girl, Oraon in their ranks and her national teammates Shubhangi Singh and Babina Devi, Kickstart FC have the potential to emerge as the black horses of the league.
Manisa Panna (Odisha FC Women)
“When we heard Odisha FC were making a team, obviously it was a matter of huge pride and also rekindled hope for women’s football in the state,” Manisa Panna said in a recent interaction with AIFF, after having signed for her local side, Odisha FC. The defender is one of the most experienced players on the block, having debuted for the Indian National Team as early as 2015.
Despite being one of the mainstays at centre-back for the national team, and a former member of three clubs that have gone on to win the IWL, the league title has eluded Panna. She has reached the final on two occasions – for Rising Students Club and Eastern Sporting. However, she found herself with the shorter end of the stuck both times. Now in a packed Odisha FC team, the 32-year-old will be backing herself to go all out for glory.
Dalima Chhibber (Kickstart FC)
Dalima Chhibber is back after a successful stint with Canadian outfit Manitoba Bisons who participate in the West Universities Premier Division. She marks her return to India by signing for the Karnataka-based club Kickstart FC. She had plied her trade for Gokulam Kerala in the prior IWL seasons winning the league with them in 2021-22. She also represented the Malabarians in the prestigious AFC Women’s Club Championship.
With an absolute piledriver of a right foot, Dalima is known for her stamina and tenacity down the right channel. The fullback has become a national team regular since her debut in 2016. Racking up a staggering 46 appearances for the Blue Tigresses, her ridiculous 40-yard screamer against Bangladesh in the SAFF Championship in 2019 is seared into the mind of all Indian Footballing fans.
Chhibber will have added responsibility this year with Kickstart FC with talented youngsters to aid her.
Pyari Xaxa (Odisha FC Women)
In the last IWL season in 2022, only Manisha Kalyan (who has since signed for Cypriot first division Apollon FC and scored for India in a friendly against the mighty Brazilian national team) had scored more goals than Pyari Xaxa, among Indians. Ever since Bala Devi signed for Rangers and suffered a long injury, Pyari had to fill her boots for the national team as the leader of the attack.
Her short stature and insurmountable speed gives her the ability to twist and turn past the defenders at will, making her a very tricky customer for opposition defenses. She has been scoring for fun – both for the national team and in the IWL, and has no reason to stop doing the same this year as well. A sensational partnership with Bala Devi is on the cards.
Shilky Devi (Gokulam Kerala FC)
Shilky Devi Hemnam is a prodigy. Making her debut for the national team at the age of 16 and the youngest player at the AFC Women’s Asia Cup 2022 at the same age, she is one of the hottest properties in Indian Women’s Football. Champions Gokulam Kerala, who would’ve been missing Dalima Chhibber’s mobility at the back have now got an able potential replacement in the versatile Shilky.
With the ability to adjust in all defensive positions, the youngster has been in fine form, as witnessed in the recent first round of the Olympic Qualifiers earlier in April. Her patience on the ball is astounding given her meager age, and she will only develop with almost guaranteed minutes with Gokulam in the IWL.
Anju Tamang (Odisha FC Women)
Despite being a midfielder, Anju Tamang has a keen eye for goals – scoring 12 goals in 48 appearances for the National Team. However, with the likes of Bala Devi and Pyari Xaxa leading the line for OFC this time, she will not have to shoulder the responsibility to score goals. She can put in the intense work-rate that characterizes her play in the middle of the park.
Ashalata Devi (Gokulam Kerala FC)
Loitongbam Ashalata Devi will be donning the Malabarian colours for the second season running in the Hero IWL 2023. Considered by many as one of the most formidable centre-halves in the subcontinent, Ashalata Devi captains both the Indian National Women’s Team as well as Gokulam Kerala in the IWL.
Highly consistent, always fit, and leading by example – watching Ashalata in action really is a delight to watch. With her on the teamsheet, any opposing forward will be in for a hard game. Despite losing the likes of Manisha Kalyan, Soumya Guguloth (who are successfully plying their trade in Europe), and Aditi Chauhan to injury, the Malabarians have done well to hold on to their skipper as they will be mounting a title defense made tougher by Odisha’s impressive acquisitions.
Sweety Devi (Odisha FC Women)
Ngangbam Sweety Devi is another example of one such shrewd acquisition by Odisha FC. The 23-year-old has over 50 appearances for India at her age. She will be tasked with marshalling the Kalinga Warriors’ defense as they look to announce their arrival in the league with style.
Indumathi Kathiresan (Gokulam Kerala FC)
Kathiresan is an IWL winner with Sethu FC from the 2018-19 season. The 28-year-old returns to the footballing scene after a short break and will be seen in the colours of Gokulam this year. Her presence in the middle of the park is sure to provide stability and tempo to the champions. She also has a positive knack of scoring goals, having bagged 15 in 50 appearances for the Blue Tigresses.
A curious fact about this tricky midfielder is that she has served as a sub-inspector for the Tamil Nadu police. In 2020, she led from the front, patrolling the streets of Chennai, ensuring the safety of all. Can she also inspire similar inspiration with her performances in the IWL season? Only time will tell.
Follow IFTWC for the latest updates on Indian Football.