Six players to watch out for in the Indian Women's League
The Indian Women's League (IWL) kicks off at the Ambedkar Stadium, Delhi on January 28 with a match between Odisha's Rising Student FC and Aizawl FC of Mizoram. Here are six footballers to watch out for in the inaugural season:
O Bembem Devi (Eastern Sporting Union)
Bembem Devi brought the curtain down on her international career for India as attacking midfielder - one that spanned over two decades - after leading India to a 4-0 win over Nepal in the South Asian Games final in Shillong in February 2016. Bembem made her India debut at the age of 15, and led India for the first time in 2003. She led the team to victories at the 2010 South Asian Games as well as the SAFF Championships in 2012. In 2014, she became the first Indian woman footballer to play for a foreign club when she turned out for New Radiant SC of Maldives. She also picked up the AIFF Woman Player of the Year award in both 2001 and 2013.
Dalima Chibber (FC Pune City)
Teenager Dalima Chibber earned her first call-up to the India senior team in early 2016, at a time when she was associated with Indian Super League (ISL) club Delhi Dynamos as a grassroots football coach for the club. She returns to the Indian Women's League with another ISL club, and the Delhi-born striker will be hoping to replicate the kind of form she showed in age-group football from her formative years, playing her first Under-19 National Games at the age of 11. Before making her India debut at the South Asian Games, she had already played for India at the under-16 and under-18 level, as well as having led the national team at under-19 level. Dalima's father Om Prakash is himself a former footballer and runs an academy of his own in Delhi.
Sasmita Malik (Rising Student Club)
The reigning AIFF Woman Player of the Year for 2016, Sasmita Malik has been a regular for the Indian national team since her debut for the seniors in 2007, when she was 18 years of age. Sasmita plays on the left wing, and the Odisha-born Bhaichung Bhutia and Lionel Messi fan was also appointed India captain in 2011, and has been a part of all four SAFF Championship-winning Indian squads.
Bala Devi (FC Pune City)
Bala Devi is the current captain of the Indian national team, and has also been one of the most consistent performers over the last decade. Together with Bembem Devi, Bala stitched an attacking partnership that made them one of the most lethal combinations not just for India but also for their state Manipur in domestic competitions. Bala was the recipient of the AIFF Woman Player of the Year award for successive years in 2014 and 2015, and also played a key role in three of India's four SAFF Championship victories, with her four goals in a 6-0 win over Nepal in the 2014 final her standout performance for India.
Sanju Yadav (FC Alakhpura)
Bhiwani in Haryana is more famous for having produced sportspersons in combat sports, but one of its inhabitants, centre forward Sanju Yadav, has taken Indian football by storm in recent years. Sanju has been an integral part of the Government Senior Secondary School, which has picked up successive titles at the Subroto Cup in Delhi, and that earned her a maiden call-up to the Indian team in the 2016 South Asian Games, where she scored against Bangladesh. She also scored for India during their SAFF Championship victory later on in the year, and was top scorer in the preliminary stages of the IWL with 11 goals. Seven of those goals came in an 18-0 win over Royal Wahingdoh. She's also the AIFF's most-recent Emerging Player of the Year awardee.
Sumithra Kamaraj (Jeppiyar IT FC)
A midfielder who will be captaining the Puducherry-based team in the IWL, Sumithra Kamaraj has come through the ranks of the Indian national team, including during the AFC Under-16 qualifiers in 2010. Sumithra was also a key member of the 2016 SAFF Championship-winning team, and scored a hat-trick for Jeppiyar in a 16-0 win over Uttar Pradesh during the preliminary stages of the IWL.