AFC Women's Asian Cup 2022: 19 years in the making — It’s time for the Blue Tigresses to step up

From not entering the qualifiers for the 2010 competition to hosting it, life has come a full sporting circle for the Indian women’s football team.

Arka Bhattacharya January 20, 2022 08:47:39 IST
AFC Women's Asian Cup 2022: 19 years in the making — It’s time for the Blue Tigresses to step up

Indian Women's Football Team for AFC Women's Asian Cup 2022. Image: Twitter/@IndianFootball

6867 days.

Those are the number of days that have elapsed since India last played a game at the women’s Asian Cup.

These 18 years have seen the team going through multiple ups and downs, well mostly downs. The Asian Cup at home will not right all those historical wrongs but it is a fantastic opportunity to bring the women’s game into the spotlight, even if for a week.

From not entering the qualifiers for the 2010 competition to hosting it, life has come a full sporting circle for the women’s team.

The Squad

The biggest miss is Indian women’s football legend Bala Devi. She is team India’s all-time top scorer with 52 goals and her Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) injury could not have come at a worse time for the Blue Tigresses. Without her, the attack loses its central focal point, its sharpest edge, and its deadliest finisher.

Another very crucial miss for team India will be Sangita Basfore. Playing in the crucial No 6 position for Team India, Basfore has acted as an effective screen for the national team for the past 2-3 years. Her injury is a big setback for Thomas Dennerby and his team, and no natural replacement has been chosen. Sanju, Indumathi or Ratanbala may be tasked with filling up that space, but none of the trio are natural defensive midfielders.

Aditi Chauhan in the goalkeeping department is the de facto No 1, but her form has been hit and miss over the last two seasons. The other two keepers, Linthoigambi Devi and Sowmiya N, have lacked match time and are thus back-ups.

The return of Kamala Devi is a huge bonus for team India. On her day, the Manipuri playmaker is a destructive force, wreaking havoc on defences – possibly the second-best player in India. In Bala’s absence, Kamala and Manisha Kalyan will be tasked with providing the firepower. Manisha has been a revelation this year, scoring at every major stage she has been a part of.

AFC Womens Asian Cup 2022 19 years in the making  Its time for the Blue Tigresses to step up

Manisha Kalyan scored India's only goal in the game against Brazil. Image: AIFF

The centre-backs, Ashalata and Sweety Devi, will have their task cut out. This is the one area of the squad that Dennerby can be confident about. Both central defenders have experience, have been a part of every major tournament or tour that India have played over the last two years.

The Preparations

India have played 14 matches this year and have won 3 of them. Crucially, one of those wins came against Chinese Taipei. More on that later.

An 8-0 loss against Russia in the Turkish Women’s Cup did not paint a good picture, but a close-run 2-3 loss against Ukraine showed glimpses of fight. The friendlies against club sides in Sweden were also lost.

The string of poor performances cost Maymol Rocky her position. The first woman coach of the Indian women’s National Team in 41 years, Maymol had stabilised the team after taking over in 2017. The loss of Bala to injury, the inability of the team to adapt in difficult conditions all contributed to her removal.

Dennerby took over after initially being tasked to take charge of the India Under-17 Women’s World Cup squad. The Swede, to his credit, has organised the team and the side has never looked as tactically flexible as the current iteration. In the previous few games, India has played a 3-5-2, a 4-3-3 and a 4-4-1-1, a testament to Dennerby’s work on the tactical side of the game.

The four-nation tournament in Brazil however showed that India still have a long way to go before they can compete with the global elite. In Brazil and Chile, they faced two sides who competed at the last World Cup and leaked nine goals in two matches.

The Opponents

It was indeed a stroke of luck that landed India this group. They managed to avoid potential banana skins such as Vietnam and Thailand. China, Chinese Taipei and Iran are their Group A opponents.

China, despite not being the superpower of the 90s and 2000s, are still one of the top three teams in Asia. Even a point against the eight-time Asian champions will be a massive return for India. The Steel Roses will only look at winning the tournament, and qualification to the World Cup. They had a tough group at the Olympics, bunched with Netherlands and Brazil. Nevertheless, it will be a mountainous task for Team India, even to avoid a heavy defeat against one of Asia’s flag-bearers.

Chinese Taipei are fallen giants at the Asian level. The two-time winners have struggled to replicate their performances in the initial iterations of the tournament. They did lose 0-1 to India in 2021, but there’s an awning gap between friendlies and competitive matches at the Asian Cup. This is the match that India will look to pick three points up if they are to qualify from the group. Chinese Taipei are making their first appearance at the tournament since 2008.

Iran are debutants at this level, but they must not be written off. They come into the group the lowest-ranked team, but they have shown the ability to improve their game. Gokulam Kerala, with a lot of national teamers in their ranks, lost 0-1 to Iran’s Shahrdari Sirjan at the Asian Women’s Club Championship. Despite only playing their first match in 2005, the ‘Melli Baanovan’ have consistently bettered their performances. They qualified for the Asian Cup at the fourth time of asking, clearly showcasing their rapidly rising pedigree.

The Chances and the Legacy

India will have to grab a win and a draw in their matches against Chinese Taipei and Iran, if they are to make the quarter-finals. India’s opener against Iran will not be easy, as the West Asian team have some quality strikers in their ranks – Zara Gormi, Afsaneh Chattrenoor, Hajar Dabbaghi.

Despite the rankings suggesting otherwise, the game against Taipei will be their best chance to win a game. With two of the best three 3rd placed teams to also progress from the group, India may have multiple bites at the cherry. However, finishing third in Group A is not an optimal solution.

Group A’s third-placed team will be pitted against Group C’s winner, likely to be Japan. The two-time reigning champions will be favourites in that quarter-final clash. Group A’s runner-up on the other hand, is likely to play Group B’s runner-up. Thailand are expected to take that spot. The Blue Tigresses will fancy their chances against Thailand than against Japan. Winning the group is a tall task and China are the hot favourites to win Group A.

With five direct World Cup spots on offer, India need to make the quarters to at least ensure a chance of making Australia-New Zealand 2023. The losing quarter-finalists stand a chance to be a part of the World Cup play-off tournament to also be held in Feb-March 2023.

With the Indian Women’s League coming up mid-season, a good showing by the women is likely to ignite interest in the women’s game. A poor display, however, may send women’s football back to the drawing board.

Team India must step up, not just for themselves, but also for the thousands of aspiring women’s footballers in the country. To show the aspirants that the game has a future, they need a solid present.

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