While football might not have been the most famous sport in the state of Odisha, the beautiful game has been catching up in popularity in recent times.
In contrast, Odisha has produced much more female footballers who have gone on to represent the national team as compared to their male counterparts.
Former East Bengal defender, the Late Proloy Saha remains the only player to be capped for India from the state. Mumbai City FC's Rakesh Oram and Churchill Brothers' Pankaj Sona are a couple of players from Odisha who are currently plying their trade in the national leagues.
However, the Football Associaton of Odisha (FAO) have hosted the last two national cup competitions; the Federation Cup in 2016-17 and the inaugural edition of the Super Cup in 2017-18.
Also, Bhubaneswar's Kalinga Stadium played host to Indian Super League (ISL) side Jamshedpur FC for a solitary game this past season where they welcomed Bengaluru FC, thus stamping Odisha on the footballing map further.
"The Government is very proactive in all football-related matters and we are looking for sponsors to further football in the state," Avijit Pal, Joint-Secretary, FAO told Goal.
Samaleswari SC is the only team from the state to ever make it to the national stage when they participated in the 2012 and 2013 2nd Division I-League but the club has folded operations since.
"The clubs has shut down three-four years ago. However, we are in early talks to send a team into the second division next season but I cannot disclose any further," revealed Pal.
In a revamped structure implemented from the 2017-18 season, the FAO had 42 teams play across two divisions in the men's game. The first division (28 teams) is further divided into three categories: Diamond (8 teams), Gold (8 teams) and Silver (12 teams). Each category had their own champions in a round-robin league as there was no promotion or relegation between the categories in 2017-18.
From 2018-19, one team each will be promoted/relegated across the categories. The bottom-placed team in the Silver category will drop down to the second division while the second division champions will take their place for the 2019-20 season.
In 2017-18, the second division was a 14-team affair divided into two groups of seven. However, this season, that number appears to be on the wane with several teams pulling out.
"Most office teams are folding out from the second division because we (FAO) don't allow them to register more than 6 players outside their company's payrolls. Many companies have stopped giving jobs to such footballers and thus have pulled out. This year, we might have around nine teams in the second division and the champion will be promoted to the Silver category in the first division", Pal explained.
The FAO are also looking to organise a 'Super Cup' after the end of the league phase. It will be an eight-team knockout tournament at the Barabati Stadium in Cuttack. The top four teams from the Diamond category, three from Gold and one from Silver will be drawn amongst each other.
The combined prize money pool for the leagues and the knockout tournament for next season is ₹ 7 Lakhs. The FAO in January 2019 will also host the all-India invitational tournament, the Kalinga Cup.
Almost all of Odisha's 30 districts have a league and the aim is to make it absolute in the next two seasons. All the winners of the respective district leagues will then come down to Cuttack in October-November and play an Inter-district club championship.
The FAO also has an inter-district team tournament for both men and women.
Youth leagues and 'Baby League'
There is an inter-school tournament in each district comprising a minimum of 16 schools each. Post that, each district sends its combined school's team for the inter-district school's competition in Cuttack.
"We are planning to implement the Baby Leagues from this season onwards even if that means it is conducted in one or two districts. There will be three categories - Ages 6 to 8, Ages 9 to 10 and Ages 11 to 12", promises Pal.
Academy wise, the Sports Hostel Odisha in Bhubaneswar received a 2-star rating accreditation in 2017-18 from the All India Football Federation (AIFF). The Kalinga Nagar Sports Academy, Jajpur and the association's own FAO Academy, Cuttack participated in the AIFF Youth Leagues in 2018.
"The FAO Academy is right now non-residential but we are planning to make it residential in a couple of months. Our aim is to hopefully have 3-4 more AIFF accreditated academies by 2019-20," said Pal.
Women's football structure
Sasmita Malik, Manisha Panna, Jabamani Tudu, Supriya Routray and Pyari Xaxa are the few gems the state of Odisha has produced for the women's game in India. To add to it, the reigning Indian Women's League (IWL) champions, Rising Student Club hails from the state.
"This time, we are looking to make the women's league longer, about 3 months. Eight teams have already been finalised and we have got it approved from the AIFF," stated Pal.
Along with that, the inter-district team tournament is also a platform for the ladies to showcase their talent as Odisha remains one of the few states in the country that seems to give as much importance to the women's game, if not more.