More teams, more players and more action.

The third edition of the Indian Women’s League which kicks off on Sunday in Ludhiana, Punjab will witness 14 teams competing for the first time.

The teams, divided into two groups, will play each other once before the top two sides from each group compete in the semifinals.

Group A Group B
Gokulam Kerala  SAI-STC Cuttack
Football Club Alakhpura  FC Kolhapur City
Rising Student's Club Baroda Football Academy
Panjim Footballers Sethu FC
Tripura Sports School CRPF Women's Football Team
Hans Women Football Club South United Football Team
Central SSB Women Football Team Manipur Police Sports Club

While teams all over the country played a qualifying round to secure entry in the tournament for the past two years, the structure is quite different this time around. Only sides that emerged winners in their respective state leagues gained direct entry in the final round.

This means that Eastern Sporting Union will miss the tournament despite winning the inaugural season and finishing second the year after.

The IWL, a three-week annual tournament that was launched in 2016, although branded a ‘league’ by the All India Football Federation has been hurt by a lack of sponsorship over the years.

The situation hasn’t been any different for last year’s winners, Rising Student’s Club who will be fielding a younger team this time around.

Rising Student's Club, winners of last year's edition. (Credit: AIFF Media)

“We are not getting any sponsors. We spent a lot of money last year. If I knew that my team will definitely participate in the IWL, then I can easily plan by the start of the year,” says Avijit Pal, the joint-secretary of the Odisha Football Association.

“But I don’t know if my team will participate in the final round or not after playing the qualifying round. So no one is interested in spending money for the teams playing in the qualifying round because no one is certain of participating,” he adds.

Sponsorships aren’t the only cause of worry.

The IWL clubs also struggle to keep up with the financial demands and a short league like this doesn’t reward the players well enough.

“It’s still not in the best condition to make it a grand league. The league must be extended to six months, not a three-week league. If its longer, they can contract the players for a longer period and it will help them earn some more money. Our national team players are also not getting secure jobs,” Avijit says.

“Even Rising Students Club from my state finished winners but they also are lacking interest because they had to play the qualifying round to gain direct entry. This is not the right way to create a league. Planning is required. The tournament is usually done by the end of March but this time due to national team commitments, it was postponed from to May. They need to make proper planning on how to sustain it for the longer run,” he suggests.

While the Manipur Police Sports Club will represent the state after winning the state league, Odisha has SAI-STC Cuttack taking part alongside Rising Students Club.

For quite some years now, Manipur and Odisha have emerged as a hotbed for Indian women’s football and their domination in the league comes as no surprise.

An ingrained football culture, a systematic youth structure and consistent running of local leagues have contributed to its rise. Even the national team has a lot of players hailing from the northeast, a major chunk coming from Manipur.

Though just 11 states conduct senior tournaments through the year, women’s footballers from states such as Manipur and Odisha have secured quota jobs to fall back on.

“We have consistently run our domestic league successfully from the last eight to ten years. Our players are also getting government jobs. So it becomes a motivation to come forward and take up football,” Avijit explains.

Rising Students Clubs will be raring to go again and lift the title for the second year running.

Apart from seasoned campaigners Supriya Routray, Pyari Xaxa, Suprava Samal and keeper Tikina Samal, youngsters such as Sanju Yadav and Anju Tamang - both part of the national camp now - also played a vital role in their successful campaign.

They scored 11 goals last season and pipped Eastern Sporting Union on penalties in the finals but it remains to be seen how they perform with a young side this time around.

“We will try our best to win the league this time again,” says Sasmita Malik, who plays for the club as a winger.

“We have named a young team to present more chances for our youngsters. We want to build a team for the future.”