Odisha awaits U-17 World Cup but bigger plan is for women's football

India U-17 national team players. Odisha Sports

After a chaotic few months for Indian football, the game's stakeholders will hope that the sport will now take centre stage. While the ISL season starts on October 7, the focus in Bhubaneswar is on the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup, which starts on October 11.

Bhubaneswar is one of three host cities and where India will play all their group stage matches. Hosting a FIFA World Cup is indeed a big positive even for a city used to staging big sporting events but there are more significant longer-term plans afoot: the overall development of women's football, helmed by the state administration and the football association.

In other states and with other administrative bodies, this might seem overambitious or PRspeak but Odisha has a track record of growing various sports and nurturing athletes - hockey, rugby, the runner Dutee Chand among others - and providing infrastructure for various private-sector academies and institutes. And the state has also been consistently producing international-level women footballers, including current India internationals Pyari Xaxa and Manisha Panna.

R Vineel Krishna, Odisha's sports secretary who's driving the project, believes that focusing on the development of women's football is the best shot at fulfilling India's aspirations of becoming a strong footballing nation. And his logic is clear: it's easier to grow women's football, and achieve tangible results, than it is with the men's game.

"There are pockets in the state where the game is popular, like Kendrapara and some parts of Mayurbhanj and Sundergarh," Krishna told ESPN during a recent meeting in his Bhubaneswar office. "There's a level of popularity and we want to build on that."

He explains the logic. "Men's football is very competitive. It's going to take considerable time for men's football to develop in India. But I think we have a fairly good chance with women's football, at least at the Asian level. Maybe in a decade or two, we can develop into a global level team. So, I feel we have better promise with women's football."

Can hosting a World Cup make a difference?

Krishna refers to the sociocultural factors that have traditionally inhibited girls playing organised sports. "If you have to promote any game at the school level and give the girls confidence, football is a low-hanging fruit because you don't require great infrastructure. If you do this at a local level, there could be social stigma attached to it. But if we make it into a bigger thing, like say the U-17 World Cup. Girls from all over the world are coming here to play, so there's a 'cool' factor to it. The girls at the school level may not be shy anymore...That is one reason why we try to promote some of these big events."

The state government already has a record of financially backing junior-level football, supporting Indian Arrows, AIFF's development team and the U-16 youth team. The teams' home ground is the Kalinga Stadium.

Teams from Odisha have done well in the Indian Women's League (IWL), the premier club competition for women in India. Rising Students' Club won the title in the second edition and Sports Odisha club finished fourth in the most recent season. And now, with ISL club Odisha FC starting a women's team, the state government and the club management want to attract the best players and aim to make an impact in the IWL.

Randeep Baruah, head of academy and women's football at Odisha FC, says the team will have a core of Odia players and will give them a platform to play the game professionally.

"The Odisha government has been investing immensely in developing sports, including football. They have these amazing pitches over here and the residential facilities. We are also investing quite a bit in the women's team. We are not bringing them on just amateur contracts, paying them for a tournament or two. We are giving them a year-long program to work with us," Baruah said.

"These investments should go in long way in encouraging girls to pursue football professionally. That is the ambition."

Baruah also believes that at the moment, women's football in India has a better chance to succeed at the global level.

"You must understand that the gaps in men's football and playing at that level is a lot larger. Whereas, with women's football, if we invest correctly, if we focus on the right set of players and build a team, I think we are a lot closer with women's football than men's."

There's no doubt the state has done well in terms of conducting a big sporting event and increasing the sport's popularity among the public. This is pretty much evident with hockey. But football is much more global and India is far behind in the global sport. The investment in women's football is a step in the right direction, but the test will come over the longer term, and whether it sustains its interest irrespective of the success of hosting a World Cup.