AFC Women's Asian Cup 2022: Australia, Japan the favourites as India embark on mission quarter-finals
Regional heavyweights Australia and Japan will aim for the trophy at the AFC Women's Asian Cup 2022, while India are targeting the last eight which can help them realise the World Cup dream.
Football is coming home!
The prestigious AFC Women's Asian Cup trophy is in India as the country gets ready to host the continental showpiece event. The tournament will see some of the top teams and players from the world — Chelsea's Sam Kerr (Australia), Bayern Munich's Saki Kumagai (Japan), Arsenal's Mana Iwabuchi (Japan), Tottenham Hotspur's Tang Jiali (China) among others — grace the pitches in Mumbai, Navi Mumbai and Pune.
The 2022 edition of the Asian Cup will be held from 20 January to 6 February, and it will first of two major women's football tournaments that India will be hosting this year. The FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup is also slated to take place, in October, in India. The irony here, however, is that the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has not managed to host the Indian Women's League (top division professional women's football competition) since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Hosting big tournaments when the domestic structure is still far from being satisfactory, is straight from AIFF's playbook of the top-down approach, wherein the hope is that the gains from hosting elite-level tournaments will trickle down to the bottom, finally awaking the 'sleeping giant'. Will it? Let's not get sidetracked, that's a discussion for some other day.
The focus currently is firmly on the Indian team and hosts as they welcome the best of the best in Asia. India have twice been the runners-up, in 1979 and 1983, but this will be their first appearance in the tournament since 2003. Laying their hands on the trophy may still be a distant dream but quarter-finals are what they are aiming for.
"Our first target is to get to quarter-finals, we think we have a realistic chance to do that," India coach Thomas Dennerby announced ahead of the Iran match.
Quarter-finals because even if you don't progress further, you will have a chance to play in the classification matches to decide which teams will feature in the intercontinental playoffs for the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup in New Zealand and Australia.
Can they do it?
India qualified for the 2022 edition by the virtue of being the hosts, but still, there's a good chance of making the quarter-finals. The hosts, who are the ninth-best team in the tournament according to the FIFA rankings, are grouped alongside eight-time champions China, Chinese Taipei and Iran. There are three groups in total and eight out of the 12 teams will qualify for the quarter-finals.
The Loitongbam Ashalata Devi-led team recently defeated Chinese Taipei in a friendly and should fancy themselves against Iran, who are the tournament debutants.
Australia have been in the final of the Asian Cup in four out of the last five editions, having won the trophy in 2010. The best team in the tournament as per FIFA rankings, the Matildas are one of the clear favourites for the title
Japan, who won the 2014 and 2018 editions, are aiming to clinch a hat-trick of title wins, but they will face some stiff competition from teams like Australia, South Korea and China.
The 2011 world champions, Japan, also haven't been at their best in the last few years. In the 2019 World Cup, they were knocked out from the round of 16 stage, and at the 2020 Olympics, their campaign ended in the quarter-finals. Japan are in transition but still boast of stars Kumagai and Iwabuchi, who make them a team to be wary of.
China are the record eight-time winner but the last title victory came in 2006. In recent years, the gap between China and other best teams in Asia has widened further, but the team is also on the rebound, giving Australia a run for their money in the Olympic qualifiers in 2020. The tournament for them will be all about re-establishing their supremacy in the region.
World No 18, South Korea, have often failed to impress at the highest level but they are one of the top-ranked sides in the tournament and alongside Vietnam are the potential underdogs who can spring a surprise or two.
COVID-19 looms large
The tournament will be held across three venues — Mumbai Football Arena in Mumbai, DY Patil Sports Stadium in Navi Mumbai and Shree Shiv Chhatrapati Sports Complex in Pune. You have to give credit where it's due, the AIFF has done a wonderful job with preparing the training grounds and the stadiums for the competition.
From world-class pitches to upgraded dressing rooms, media tribunes and hospitality areas, the AIFF's local organising committee has done some impressive work. Unfortunately, fans won't be allowed inside the stadiums to watch the matches.
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Presenting the transformation of all facilities which are now in readiness to host the AFC Women's Asian Cup India 2022!
— Indian Football Team (@IndianFootball) January 17, 2022
The tournament will be conducted inside a bio-secure bubble with COVID-19 cases in India on a rise. As has been the case with the I-League and Indian Sper League, the coronavirus is very capable of breaching the bio-bubble and jeopardising the tournament.
While the aim is to have a glitch-free tournament, the Asian Football Confederation and AIFF have necessary contingency plans in place, including going ahead with a match as long as even 13 players are available. Everyone in the bubble will also have to take COVID-19 tests every 72 hours.
"...we have contingency plans, AFC has contingency plans (for COVID-19). The affected player or players will be isolated but the teams will be fielded as long as 13 players (in each team) are available," AIFF president Praful Patel said ahead of the tournament.
The stage is set, the teams are here, the contingency plans are in place. Get ready for high-class football action in the next 18 days, where history could be made or dreams may get shattered. Let's football!
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