IWL 2023 playing conditions: Peak summer heat, 4am wake-up, bad food, limited live coverage

Indumathi Kathiresan in action as Gokulam Kerala take on Mata Rukmani FC in an IWL group match, in the blazing heat of Ahmedabad. Gokulam Kerala

On April 14, AIFF president Kalyan Chaubey said the Indian Women's League would be revamped from next season. He repeated this a few days later, soon after the current season began, saying the IWL would be "different" from next season.

There's a lot they could change. This season of the IWL is such that, had the officials wanted to design a tournament that would be a nightmare to participating teams and largely invisible to fans, they couldn't have done any better.

The tournament is being held in Ahmedabad, where it is peak summer; to try and beat the worst of the heat, some matches start at 8 a.m., which means teams have to start preparations from around 4 a.m.; there are floodlights but they haven't been used so matches have to be played in daylight; the schedule is almost ad hoc, with dates for the tournament start and the knockout stages being made public at the last minute (the semi-finals are on May 19 but the date of the final has not yet been announced). And, almost to prevent fans from witnessing any of this, there is no TV broadcast and only evening matches are streamed.

And this is the Indian Women's League, the premier tournament for women's football in India.

Things got so bad that, midway through the tournament, players from all teams got together and - in a rare display of dissent against the system - wrote a joint letter to the AIFF listing out the various issues and complaints. That's when the AIFF apologized and promised better organization in the future.

ESPN spoke to several clubs to understand the conditions they were playing under and, while players and staff spoke in detail, most preferred to speak on condition of anonymity. Here, we break it all down issue-by-issue:

Playing conditions

How bad is the heat? Last week, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation issued an orange warning asking citizens to remain indoors as the city reels under a heatwave.

"Till at least 5.30 - 6 PM, the heat is too much. It's like peak afternoon heat, but sustained from morning-to-evening," said one club official. "It's nearly 45 degrees, with a constantly blazing sun overhead. You can't even sit in the stands or the dugout. The dugout and the subs bench especially are encased in glass which magnifies the heat. It's like being inside a grill."

Even in the evening matches (which are livestreamed), players can be seen sitting on the subs' bench with wet towels over their heads.

Randeep Baruah, head of women's football at Odisha FC, put this in context of the players' performance and conditioning. "The players have largely been with us since September, apart from a few whom we signed before the IWL. We worked with ABTP (Abhinav Bindra Targeting Performance) to build on their physical fitness. But we can't replicate these conditions... This is dry heat. You know the Delhi loo (dry wind) in the summers? It's similar to that. It's like you're a Thums Up bottle and someone's sucking you out with a straw, it's not possible to play your best in these conditions."

"It is slightly bit better in the morning kickoffs," said another official. "But that's only at the start... by the second half (around 9 AM), the heat rises to unbearable levels. Last season we thought Odisha's heat was bad... but that was far better than this. This is unbearable. It's like we're playing in a desert."

A club official said that all teams are suffering lots of injuries and that they were just about managing, since there's no real option to do otherwise. "It's hot, girls are dehydrated. But what to do? There's a league on so we keep going," said another.

As for the pitches at the two stadiums, the teams say the TransStadia one is pretty good, but the Shahibaugh Police Stadium ground is bumpy, uneven, and very poorly maintained. Both stadiums have floodlights, but they aren't being used.

The training grounds provided by the AIFF too were of poor quality, they say.

Accommodation and food

The teams were put up at three places across Ahmedabad: the IIT campus (Gokulam Kerala and East Bengal), a PG accommodation and an apartment complex (which is a college's sports hostel). While the IIT campus was fine in terms of accommodation and food, the others were not.

The hostel housed other student-athletes as well (including men and sometimes on the same floor); and there was a struggle to get extra rooms for team officials. AIFF had proposed putting officials from different clubs into one apartment, but that was rejected firmly by some of the clubs. The food, says one official, is very bad at this accommodation. "They've put up a shamiana (as for a wedding) outside and are serving the food there... in the open, in the unbearable heat."

"People are falling sick because the rice is uncooked and the quality of food is very bad," said a club official. "My coaches are sick, players are sick. All said and done, a sports person looks for a good meal. They should have paid a little more attention to it. Some officials said 'This is what we have. Are you here to play or eat food?' That's the kind of response you get from on-ground officials."

Travel and sleep

There was a common theme that all clubs ESPN spoke to touched upon: sleeping patterns and nutrition. The travelling for AIFF-allotted training sessions and games -- which take between 45-minutes to an hour away by road (one-way) -- has taken a heavy toll. Baruah explained, "The issue is that for an 8 am game, we all have to wake up at 4-4:30am. That's not ideal for any athlete's body, for high performance."

"We are up by 4:30 AM, 5:15 AM reporting [after getting ready], 6:30 AM at the ground," said another official. "[The players] don't eat, just have a banana, chai or biscuit and they play. What we are doing is buying more fruits and managing. We also requested our caterer for some chicken for dinner -- here they give some non-veg, but it's just for the sake of it. If this was a boy's event, it would have turned nasty. But the girls are very, very accommodating. Seriously, it is horrible."

Streaming and broadcast

The group stage and quarters saw two matches start simultaneously at 8 AM and two simultaneously at 4.30 PM. While this fact in itself meant it was impossible to follow the IWL fully, it was made worse by the fact that only evening matches were streamed live. This, said AIFF president Chaubey in an interview with Times of India, was to enable the AIFF to focus on quality of broadcast rather than quantity.

The tender for broadcasters to apply went out on April 21, five days before the start of the tournament. The tender for photographers went out on the opening day, April 26.

With only half the matches streamed live, that's a whole lot of top-level football that fans have missed out on - including Gokulam Kerala's draw with Misaka United, a result that ended Indian football's longest-ever top-division winning run (Gokulam had won 21 straight IWL matches before this).

Forget live streaming, there were no live updates of these morning matches on either the AIFF website or social media pages.

"Before the start of the season," said Baruah, "we were told there would be no broadcast (on TV), but that the matches will be streamed. We were not told about the number of matches. There's a bunch of people talking on Twitter about the IWL, but that's such a small number. How do you [get] the IWL and women's football to more people without broadcast?"

"Look at our group in the IWL now. Eastern (ESU) beat Kickstart who beat us. We have this player Jasoda Munda, she played so well against ESU, but nobody will know that because nobody has seen it. Women's Football is a grassroots sport in India still, a lot of these IWL clubs are grassroots clubs. We need to give them more incentives to keep doing what they do."


Before the tournament started, ten clubs wrote a joint letter to the AIFF seeking clarity on the scheduling and format of the tournament. A meeting was then called and the IWL was delayed by ten days to give clubs the opportunity to have sort of a pre-season camp.

Now, the short duration of the tournament has always been a point of criticism levelled at the AIFF; but clubs were told that the AIFF was constrained by the window allocated for the national team.

"It's a compromised thing," said one club official. "But we're okay with it because something is happening for women's football. We want to support the new regime, and this is the first time we have a footballer as a president. The location could have been better - last year was much better organized."

Much like the Super Cup held earlier this month in Kerala, the core organizational responsibilities have been given to the state association. ESPN understands that there is only one official from the AIFF (apart from the match commissioners) present in Ahmedabad, and that no one from either the new women's department or the media team has been there (till date, i.e., the end of the quarterfinals).

Over to Chaubey and the AIFF to deliver on their promise and improve conditions from next year. It helps that the bar is so low than anything will be an improvement on IWL 2023.

(with reporting from Shyam Vasudevan, Aaditya Narayan and Anirudh Menon)