A herd of deer and a pride of peacocks greet you as you head towards the Polo Ground at the New Palace in Kolhapur. Located at a slight depression and overlooking the castle, the Polo Ground will play host to Wednesday's Junior Girls' National Football Championships final between Jharkhand and Himachal Pradesh.
The Palace, built in the late 19th century, attracts plenty of visitors for its exquisite black stone polished structures but not many seem intrigued by the football matches going on within reaching distance. The ruler, Shahu Maharaj, is omnipresent at the games here but the same can't be said about the general public. Perhaps the 40-odd degree weather is a deterrent.
But the city of Kolhapur loves the sport. Talk about local football and one of the organisers excitedly points out that the state leagues are a rage here and the matches featuring teams like Shivaji Tarun Mandal and Dilbahar Talim Mandal attract close to 18,000 fans at the nearby Shahu Stadium.
The ongoing junior girls' championship here, though, has barely attracted any spectators, and the organisers, hopeful of a bigger crowd (read: attendees other than the coaches and support staff of the teams) have decided to set up a third tent for the viewers.
These tents will offer the spectators some much-needed shade, but the players on the pitch will contest it out under the blazing sun at 3:30 pm in the afternoon. There should ideally be more spectators as this tournament serves as a scouting platform ahead of the 2020 FIFA Women's U-17 World Cup to be held in India. Girls from 27 states have battled through the rounds over the last week and Jharkhand and Himachal Pradesh have emerged as the two formidable forces to make the final.
Jharkhand, donning bright yellow jerseys, has had the most remarkable run. Beginning their campaign with a 21-0 mauling of Jammu and Kashmir, the girls have seized the limelight with their free-flowing and easy-on-the-eye style of football. Having scored 38 unanswered goals over four games, the side heads into the final as the undoubted favourite.
Along with a shot at the title, the girls also have the added pressure of performing to receive a call up for the U-17 camp to be held in Goa next week. They surely appear to have done enough to attract the selectors' attention and another flawless display would do them no harm.
Leading the team is charismatic striker Sumati Kumari, scorer of an astonishing 17 goals. “I hope we can win the title tomorrow and I receive the national team call up,” she says with a shy smile.
Sumati grew up playing with the boys in her village of Gumla in Jharkhand and was drafted into the state team two years ago. She is joined in the team by seven of her classmates, all of whom go to St. Patrick's school and it is therefore of little surprise that their camaraderie is so visible on the turf.
ALSO READ | Delhi's Aveka Singh aims to emulate idol Neymar
Sumati will have the task of outfoxing a resolute Himachal Pradesh defence that is yet to concede a goal. Himachal has been effective, showcasing a watertight backline that is quick to pounce on any threats and an attacking unit that piles relentless pressure on the opposition defenders.
While Himachal hasn't been as extravagant as its opponent and hasn't staged odds-defying wins, it will bank on its solidity and structured play.
Midfielder Poonam scored a last-gasp header with less than a minute left on the clock in the semifinal against Haryana on Monday. However, Poonam, with six goals to her name, will hope she doesn't leave it until the last minute in Wednesday's tantalising title clash.
- Bahrain Grand Prix: F1 champion Verstappen of Red Bull on pole for season-opener
- Ranji Trophy semifinal: Chandrakant Pandit eyes victory against former side as Vidarbha, Madhya Pradesh face off
- German Open 2024: Jolly-Gayatri bow out of quarterfinals, lose to Chinese pair of Jing-Min
- Mohun Bagan vs Jamshedpur FC highlights, MBSG 3-0 JFC, ISL 2023-24: Sadiku, Cummings, Petratos goals guide Mariners to comfortable win
- ISL 2023-24: Mohun Bagan Super Giant cruises to win against Jamshedpur FC