AFC Women's Asian Cup 2022: Bala Devi confident of good performance from India in the tournament
Star footballer Bala Devi feels the key for India to do well in the women's Asian Cup will be to stay calm and not get ahead of themselves.
India will be without trailblazer Ngangom Bala Devi for the AFC Women's Asian Cup 2022, but the Manipuri footballer is confident that her colleagues will be able to put up a memorable performance as the continental showpiece event returns to the country after 43 years.
The women's Asian Cup was last hosted in India in 1979. The latest edition of the event kicks off on 20 January and will be played till 6 February across three venues in Mumbai and Pune. The championship will feature the best teams in Asia including Australia (FIFA ranking 11), Japan (FIFA ranking 13) and South Korea (FIFA ranking 18).
World No 55, India, begin their campaign against Iran (FIFA ranking 70) on 20 January.
"I have been in touch with my colleagues. The mood in the camp is very high and the coach has done a wonderful job with the squad, picking the best players he can for such a major tournament. I am confident this team will do well," says Bala who became the first Indian women's footballer in January 2020 to earn a professional abroad, with European club Rangers FC.
She will miss the tournament as the 31-year-old is still recovering from an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) surgery.
India have twice been the runners-up in the tournament which has been won by China on a record eight occasions. The Asian powerhouse is part of India's group with Iran and Chinese Taipei being the other two teams. Asian Cup will see 12 teams jostle it out for continental supremacy.
The five best teams from the tournament will directly qualify for the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup. The losing quarter-finalists will also have a chance as they would play in the classification matches to decide who will feature in the intercontinental playoff spots for the World Cup.
India began their preparations last year with the appointment of former Sweden coach Thomas Dennerby. The team has been in a camp for five months that have included numerous friendlies, the highlight of which was the match against footballing giant Brazil.
"The women's team has got a lot of exposure. They even made a trip to South America to play with big teams like Brazil. The team has been provided a lot of exposure," says Bala.
"With all the friendlies, the team has gained a lot of experience. The players have developed technically. It will be important they stay calm in the matches and give their best."
When asked if India can reach the quarter-finals and have a real shot at the World Cup berth, the experienced player, who has scored 52 goals in 58 India matches, said the key for the hosts will be to stay in the present.
"In my conversation, I always motivate my colleagues to give their 100 percent. If you leave your everything on the pitch, the results will be good only," she says.
While she is excited to see her teammates take on the best from Asia in the tournament, there's also some sadness in missing out on the tournament. Her European stint was cut short last year due to the ACL injury despite her contract running down till December 2021.
"Of course, there's some sadness. I have waited for a long time to play in a big tournament in my home country but that is not happening. We cannot predict life. I am confident the current team will do well," Bala exclaims.
Currently rehabbing at JSW's Inspire Institute of Sport in Bellary, Karnataka, Bala says she should be back to full fitness in "a month or so". She hopes to go back to Europe after getting back to her best.
"Anuj (her agent) and I have been constantly in touch about what should be my future actions. The focus is currently on fitness, so I am back to playing my best. After this, we will look at going back to Europe," Bala signs off.
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