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AFC Women's Asian Cup 2022: Indian women's football team primed for revolutionary outing

India's domestic structure is weaker than a few countries, but the women's team can still be expected to reach the knockout stages and secure a historic World Cup berth, given the preparation that has gone in.

asian cup

The Indian team in action during training for the AFC Women's Asian Cup (AIFF)


Shaji Prabhakaran

Updated: 20 Jan 2022 5:55 AM GMT

Women's football in India is likely to witness a major upswing in the coming weeks as the Indian women's national team is all set to hit the pitch with some memorable performances at the AFC Women's Asian Cup 2022. Hosts India are expected to reach the quarterfinals stage and challenge for a spot in the next FIFA Women's World Cup 2023.

AFC Women's Asian Cup is coming back to India for the first time after 1979, when we had finished runners-up in the AFC (Asian) Women's Championship. What a coincidence that three-time champions Chinese Taipei - the champions of 1979 - are in the same group as India.

In Group A, record 8-time winners China are favourites to sail through to the quarters. India can grab second spot if we win over Chinese Taipei and debutants Iran. Even if we finish third in the group with one win, we might have a possibility to go through to the knockout round as one of the best two third-place teams.

China was once a dominant force in women's football but has been struggling to repeat the dominance of the 1980s and '90s over the last decade.

My favourites are Australia and Japan. On the whole, Australia looks to be best prepared team.

Reigning champions Japan are in a transition phase. They have been re-developing the side for the last two years after some of their key players retired. The Asian champions restructured their domestic women's league with a fully professional division in 2020. With four divisions in the league structure, Japan currently has one of the best women's leagues in Asia. This new structure is likely to further strengthen Japan's dominance in Asian football. Japan has always been one step ahead of other Asian countries in terms of women's football and the 2011 World Champions have produced players who are now in demand with top European clubs

In Group B, Australia do not have much of a challenge to grab top spot. The 2010 champions, the co-hosts of FIFA Women's World Cup 2023, are in the best of preparations and recent results suggests that the Matildas are going to dominate the group. Thailand are likely to secure second spot and qualify for the last 8 from Group B. In the last decade, Thailand have improved their women's football structure and investments made in women's football have also tremendously helped the game to grow there. Indonesia and Philippines will be fighting for the third spot.

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In Group C, Japan are likely to sail through to the quarterfinals. Korea Republic will fight it out with Myanmar and Vietnam for the second spot. This is probably the toughest group and we can expect some close matches here. Myanmar were rising stars a few years ago but political instability has depleted their side. Vietnam, on the other hand, are likely to throw a challenge to Korea Republic and Myanmar for the second spot in this group.

High-quality match practice, coaching - What to expect from the Indian team

With India hosting the event, expectations are high and no one can complain of a lack of preparation. In the history of women's football in India, no team has played as many preparatory matches across the globe as the current team. Playing in countries from Brazil to Sweden has given our girls tremendous experience and valuable competitive games to make them mentally stronger.

Though our domestic competitive structure for women's football is very weak, these international friendlies and all the training under Swedish coach Thomas Dennerby will come handy to our team. Dennerby's experience as a coach is bound to give the team valuable insights and belief, which can prove to be the difference in tight encounters. The Swedish tactician has introduced a new approach and elements in training - where strength, conditioning, mental aspect, tactical organisation in each phase of the game, especially the attacking phase, have all seen a big transformation.

Manisha Kalyan will be expected to emerge as one of the stars of the tournament after her exploits in Brazil last year. It would have been perfect for the Indian team if we had the services of Bala Devi. She is recovering from her injury and the team will definitely miss her experience.

In the opening match on January 20, we will meet debutants Iran. We have a better head-to-head record against them, but Iran will be a physical opponent and will put up their best fight till the last whistle. Against Chinese Taipei too, we have an edge as India edged past the three-time Asian champions last year in a friendly in Bahrain.

Infrastructure, funding - How Indian football will benefit

On the whole, the AFC Women's Asian Cup 2022 is set to have a massive influence on the development of women's football in India. The Maharahtra government must be complimented for investing in and developing and refurbishing the required infrastructure at the three venues in the state - which will continue to be legacies of this tournament.

The most unfortunate part is the third wave. The competition is being staged in the middle of the pandemic and thus fans won't be able to cheer for the Blue Tigresses from the stands. What a great atmosphere for women's football that could have been! To witness a packed stadium for a women's match would have given a great fillip to the women's game in India.

It is still a sad reality that women's football struggles to find sponsors and promoters in our country, and thus our women footballers do not get any economic dividends by being part of women's football except a few full-time employments in government departments.

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We can expect that women's football in India will have a competitive league structure at all levels after the successful hosting of this event. We can also hope that the game will receive bigger funding from governments and corporates, which would help in developing talents and strengthening grassroots.

Many of our women players come from economically weaker sections of society. Each of these girls have an inspiring story behind how they reached this far. It is important to make the early stages of their development as footballers easier. This can bring about a spurt in women's participation in football.

Best chance to achieve World Cup dream

This is also going to be the best opportunity for India to qualify for the FIFA Women's World Cup 2023 as Asia has got an extra slot this time - Australia is already part of the next World Cup by virtue of being the co-hosts. This is the first time that 12 teams are taking part in the Women's Asian Cup, till 2018 it was 8.

As per all-time records, India is ranked 8th in Asia. Women's football in India was started in 1970s. The Indian women's team had a better run at the Asian stage compared to the men's tem in 70s and 80s and early part of 90s. It would be a remarkable achievement and the best achievement for Indian football if we achieve the dream of reaching the FIFA Women's World Cup 2023.

To host this level of competition demands significant investment, and it is due to the central government and the Maharashtra government that we are going to witness the best of Asia's women's football here from February 20 to March 6. The best return on this big investment would be qualifying for the 2023 World Cup. There woul be no looking back from that!

We can only wish that all the participating teams stay safe throughout the competition and Covid-19 won't breach the bio-bubble. The biggest worry is that all the good work of the last three years can be undermined if teams are going to be affected by Covid cases.

I wish the AFC Women's Asian Cup 2022 is conducted in a safe and secure environment and we get to see the best women's football displayed on Indian soil. I wish the performances will inspire millions of women in India and attract them to the beautiful game. May the best team win!

(The writer is the president of Delhi Football Association. He is also the former FIFA South Central Asia Development Officer.)

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