Indian football at has been embroiled in confusion surrounding the men’s team selection for the Asian Games over the last few weeks.
The storm passed when the All India Football Federation (AIFF) finally announced the official squad for the tournament on September 15, with Sunil Chhetri leading the side.
Away from controversies, at the Odisha Football Academy in Bhubaneswar, another Indian football team – the Blue Tigresses – has been training for the Asian Games since the beginning of last month.
A preparatory list of 34 players was finally trimmed to a 22-member squad, which will fly to Hangzhou, China on Sunday evening.
Among the players training is Pyari Xaxa, Odisha’s local girl, nickcamed ‘Ferrari’ of the women’s team because of her blistering pace.
In the training ground, previously called the Police Ground, the AIFF’s Emerging Player of the Year in 2015, is seen dribbling past her teammates, scoring at ease and warming up as she gears up for her return to the national team squad after a year.
“The first thought is to practice well. It is my dream to return to the Indian team (starting line-up) and give my best. I’ll take every step as it comes,” she told Sportstar.
Having made her senior team debut in 2015, just after turning 18, the girl from Kuarmunda – a small town in Odisha – was one of the most promising youngsters when the Indian women clinched gold in the South Asian Games in 2016.
Xaxa has been the face of Odisha’s attack at the national level and one of India’s most promising forwards since, alongside Manisha Kalyan and Ngangom Bala Devi.
“Bala di has been my idol since my childhood. I played with her in 2017, in Malaysia, where I scored with involvements from both Bala di and Kamala Devi. That was a very special moment for me,” she recalled.
The forward also added that her game improved a lot under the tutelage of Thomas Dennerby, the current head coach of the Indian women’s team, who had led Sweden to the Olympic Games bronze medal in 2011 and Nigeria to the FIFA Women’s World Cup round of 16 in 2019.
“Thomas sir is my favourite coach. Whatever time I spent with him (as coach), in the national camp and tournaments, he helped my game go to a very high level,” she said.
“I was a bit indisciplined early on. So, he taught me how to manage time and how to keep myself physically and mentally fit. We used to get nervous watching good teams. But then he taught us to keep our composure.”
Xaxa’s journey with the national team, however, hit a stumbling block after the AFC Women’s Asian Cup debacle, where host India was forced to withdraw after a coronavirus outbreak in the camp.
Her last match for India was in an unofficial friendly against Swedish side, Eskilsminne IF, in June 2022. Since then, Xaxa has given her all to get back to her best.
Despite struggling with a knee problem, for which she had to undergo surgery (in January 2023), she won the silver medal with her state in the 2022 National Games and then helped it reach the semifinals of the 2023 Senior Women’s National Football Championship.
But before she could completely recuperate, another sucker punch shattered her plans for a full-fledged return.
“We (Odisha) were playing against Jharkhand (on June 14, 2023) in the National Championships. I had scored the first goal of the match early on,” she told Sportstar.
“In the second half, I was trying a header (from a cross coming from the right flank). But the keeper tried to intercept and ended up injuring me on my chest.”
What followed was a depressing spell of self-doubt with negative thoughts clouding her mind. It was then she found a true friend in her childhood hero, Bala Devi.
“I remember a time when I had an injury, my morale got really down on how can I make a comeback. But Bala di supported me a lot. She taught me to always stay positive, guided me in my rehab,” she said.
Bala Devi, India’s all-time top scorer and the first Indian woman to score in Europe – during her time with the Scottish side, Rangers – joined Odisha FC Women in 2023 and helped Xaxa get back to her feet again.
“I was really tensed about the rehab because this was the second time I had surgery but she helped me to enjoy the rehab. She told me that unless you enjoy the rehab you will not be able to give your 100 per cent and that helped a lot,” Xaxa said, training with Bala as part of the Indian team now.
India, too, suffered without the presence of a pacy attacker. It played 11 matches without her in the squad and won just four. It was eliminated from the SAFF Championship for the first time in 2022 – a tournament it has won every other time except last year.
The return of Xaxa might just be the missing puzzle in India’s attack at the Asian Games now.
“I feel what is to happen, happens. We should forget what has happened and focus on what is to come because what happened was not in our hands,” she said, “So we focus on how to improve, how to fight our next opponents and how much more should we practice to become a better side.”
At the Asian Games, India will have Xaxa, Bala Devi, Jyoti Chouhan, Sandhiya Ranganathan and Manisha as its main options in attack.
Jyothi recently became the first Indian footballer to score a hat-trick in Europe, playing for the Croat side, Dinamo Zagreb, while Manisha made history, too, becoming the first Indian goalscorer in the UEFA Women’s Champions League.
With Bala Devi also back from an ACL injury, breaking into the starting line-up will be the biggest challenge for Xaxa.
“I think injuries were a factor because of which I could not express myself completely. Now (that I am fit), I will give my 100 per cent in the next tournament (Asian Games),” she said.
The Blue Tigresses will open their Asian Games campaign against Chinese Taipei on September 21 and play Thailand, three days later.
The Ferrari from Odisha might have spent enough time in the garage. And Hangzhou might be her biggest test to prove how good she can really be.
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