'I had no idea I would play for India': Pyari Xaxa reflects on her journey

Finishing as Odisha FC's top scorer in IWL with eight goals and the second-highest scorer in the league, Pyari impressed one and all.

Update: 2024-04-09 07:44 GMT

Pyari with her trademark celebration after scoring against Kickstart in IWL. (Photo credit: Odisha FC Women/X) 

Odisha FC Women etched their name in the history books by winning the Indian Women's League (IWL), the nation's premier club competition for women. In addition, they have also qualified for the AFC Women's Champions League.  

The club was formed just 20 months back. Their rise in such a short span of time is a testament to the collective effort of Odisha FC, be it their players, coaches, the owners and the team management. They ensured the players were given the best possible ambience to play at their best. 

One player who has been instrumental in their triumph is Pyari Xaxa. Finishing as Odisha's top scorer with eight goals and the second-highest scorer in the league, Pyari impressed one and all. 

From humble beginnings to reaching the peak

Hailing from Kuarmunda, a village in the Sundargarh District of Odisha, Pyari grew up playing multiple sports with the boys before settling into football as her main sport.

"I come from a small village where I grew up playing a lot of different sports like kabaddi, football, kho kho and so on. I played with the other boys in my village even though girls playing sports is generally looked down upon in my village," she told The Bridge

Pyari got the breakthrough when her uncle insisted to her parents that she be given formal training in a club after watching her play.

"My uncle once saw my play in the rain and liked my passion for sports. He convinced my family to send me to a club and they obliged. I was asked to focus on one sport and I chose football. I had no idea then that I would end up playing at the highest level," Pyari said. 

Thus began Pyari's career in football, at a club called Kunwarmunda.

"Given my experience of playing with the boys, I was able to rectify my mistakes quickly and my game as a result of that became better in a relatively short span of time. The desire to play for India became relentless in my teen years and subsequently I was able to achieve it," she added. 

Pyari made her Indian team debut when she was 18 and has since been a prominent member of the side. She was crucial in India's gold-winning campaign in the 2016 South Asian Games. Since then, she has been a fan favourite and has been referred to as the "Ferrari" of the Indian women's team thanks to her blistering pace. 

She also pointed out the support she has had from her family growing up.

"My family has been very supportive in my entire journey. I have two brothers who took great care of me. In fact they were the ones who asked me to choose one sport and focus on it and when I decided i wanted to pursue football, they supported me in every possible way," she said. 

"I grew up idolising Sasmita Malik, who also happens to be my senior. Bala di has been my idol since my childhood. I also love Alex Morgan and Cristiano Ronaldo," remarked Pyari, when asked about her role model growing up.

Sasmita and Bala Devi are the highest goal scorers for the Indian women's team with the latter also being the first Indian woman to play at a top-flight Scottish club Rangers FC. 

Injury setbacks and the journey back to pitch

Like any other footballer, Pyari has also had her share of time on the sidelines due to injuries. She had been struggling with knee problems and underwent surgery in January 2023. Just as she was returning to full fitness an injury during a game meant she had to stay away from the game again. 

"It was very tough being injured and not being able to play," said Pyari.

"I had my second surgery last year and it was a very difficult time for me. For one it is a game of patience. If I rush back or force the issue the injury can relapse and make it even worse so it was a slow process and it was daunting. But I was ably supported by everyone, my family, my teammates and my club during the whole time," she said.

Pyari with the IWL trophy

Image courtesy: Pyari's Instagram 

 She also talked about the importance of having an optimistic mindset during the time spent away from the pitch.

"Thanks to the people around me, I was able to switch my mindset to be more positive and considered all of this an experience and learning. I did my rehab properly and took my time returning to full match fitness. When I got back on to the pitch, I knew I had done everything right and that gave me the confidence to ward off any fear," she said. 

Club, fan support and camaraderie between players

Being a home-state woman, playing for Odisha FC was more than just a game for Pyari. It was a matter of great pride and honour for her.

"Whenever a name has FC as its suffix, there is a large feeling of professionalism that is associated with it and that is what Odisha FC is. It is an extremely professional club. The same level of professionalism that was present for the men's team was also extended to the women's team which was very nice to experience," she said. 

She spoke very warmly about the camaraderie shared between the players and the support staff.

"We shared a very good relation on and off the pitch. The management and support staff kept us calm and did not overwhelm us with information. Rather they told us to trust our abilities and play freely without keeping in mind the result," she remarked.

Pyari celebrating a goal with her OFCW teammates in an IWL game

Image courtesy: Pyari's instagram

"Such process oriented approach was very helpful as it brought the best out of all of us. We supported each other on and off the pitch. We were relaxed before games and even during times of pressure, we were able to be calm and think with a clear mind thanks to the ambience created by the entire club and that is the reason we became successful," she added. 

She also added the support the women's team received from the men's side and said it was very helpful in maintaining a very vibrant atmosphere in the club. "We used to interact with the men's team. They were appreciative towards our work and encouraged us often which gave us more confidence to continue doing what we did," she said. 

Winning the IWL

It is no ordinary feat to win the nation's top-tier women's club competition, and it is even harder for a club that was formed just two years ago but Odisha FC Women managed to do just that. Odisha FC Women reached the zenith in style by winning 6-0 over Kickstart, with Pyari scoring a brace, one of which was an audacious chip from outside the penalty box. 

They ended the season with 10 wins and 1 draw from 12 games, scoring 31 goals and conceding just 4 with a goal difference of +27. 

Pyari talked through the emotions behind the final whistle that confirmed them as champions of the 2023-24 IWL campaign.

"We needed a win against Kickstart to clinch the title and we were fully determined to do that. We worked extremely hard to be in this situation and all of us knew there was no way we were going to let it slip. From the kickoff we were on it and until the full time whistle rang we did not lose our focus. It was extremely important for me as well given my return from injury and all those extra hours of work put in rehab bore fruit when the full time whistle rang," Pyari recollected. 

She continued saying that "All of us were extremely happy. We had managed to achieve the goal we set out to do before the campaign and it was very fulfilling. Personally, it felt good to experience that moment after all I went through during my injury. It was a dream come true for all of us at the club". 

Future of women's football in India:

Although women's football has been on the rise in India over the years, challenges have remained. Pyari, when asked about how things can be made better and how the current level of progress has impacted the growth of women's football, she said, "I hope we get professional clubs for women in all the states in India. It can do wonders for the growth of the sport." 

"I remember how it felt for me as a professional when I saw the professional infrastructure that was given to us, the beautiful pitches, these by themselves add more motivation to players and push players to do even more in practice and I wish women in all states get the opportunity to experience it," she added. 

"A lot of grounds are not properly maintained. It raises the risk of injuries for the players and I hope good basic infrastructure is provided for women across the country to bring out their best and grow the sport in India," she continued.

This year's IWL season saw a change in format with the introduction of a home and away format and it has been received very well by the clubs. "The home and away format is very nice. To play at home in front of your fans is a surreal experience. When they cheer for you , you get more motivated to play to your best and that is a very welcome change in the IWL," Pyari said. 

"I used to play for another club before joining Odisha FC Women. The feeling of representing a big club, that also happens to be from my home state, is one of immense pride. To see the fans cheering for us and rooting for our success gives all of us great joy and we are happy to pay back the support they showed us throughout the season," Pyari concluded. 


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