AFC Women’s Asian Cup: What’s at Stake for the Women’s Game in India
The Indian women’s football team players in training ahead of the AFC Women’s Asian Cup.
India is set to host the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Women’s Asian Cup in Mumbai and Pune from January 20 to February 6. Football is the most popular sport in the world, and that holds true for the women’s game as well with the last FIFA Women’s World Cup becoming a big draw across the globe. India, both the national team, as well as the organizers, would be hoping the continental championship will provide leverage for the game to take flight in the country.
The pundits in India believe that the country’s women's team has a better chance of playing the FIFA World Cup before the men’s team. The top 5 finishers (barring Australia which has qualified as a co-host) of the AFC Asian Cup automatically qualify for FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023. Two more teams qualify to go for inter-continental playoffs for the World Cup. The number of teams participating through qualification rounds in the AFC Asian Cup has been increased from 8 to 12 for this edition. By means of becoming the hosts, India play in the main draw. This gives India a golden opportunity to qualify for the ultimate stage in women’s football.
These are the things that are on paper, though. And, we all know that football, on ground, doesn’t play out to the script.
A Reality Check
Indian national women’s football team’s last venture in any tournament was in December 2021 in South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) U-19 Women's Championship. Even though it is an age group tournament, the performance there could be an indicator of the level of football. Indian team lost to Bangladesh 0-1 in the final played at Bir Sherestha Shaheed Shipahi Mostafa Kamal Stadium, Dhaka. It is a fact that the India U-19 team was completely outplayed by the host country. In the final match Bangladesh had made 15 shots at goal to India’s 1. Currently Bangladesh senior women’s team is ranked 143rd (29th among AFC countries) in the FIFA rankings whereas India are 55th (11th among AFC countries). The fact that four players from that India squad finally got their place in the AFC Women’s Asian Cup team reflects the poor pool of players we possess.
On the positive side, the team has had a fairly fruitful exposure tour of Latin America where they played against Brazil, Chile and Venezuela only a month back. Despite the losses there, the team’s composure, stamina and perseverance had attained appreciation from all corners. The team will be deprived of supporters cheering in the stadium owing to the restrictions put in because of Covid-19 protocols, but it will definitely enjoy home advantage in other aspects like familiarity with weather and ground condition. The Indian team is placed in a relatively comfortable group.
Group A: China, Chinese Taipei, India, Iran
Group B: Australia, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand
Group C: Japan, Myanmar, Republic of Korea, Vietnam
It will also be interesting to see the rankings of the teams participating in this tournament. The FIFA World and AFC rankings of the participating teams are as below:
DPR Korea (FIFA ranking 10 and AFC ranking 1), Uzbekistan (FIFA ranking 45, AFC ranking 9), ranked above India are not part of the AFC Women’s Asian Cup.
India is clubbed in Group A along with China, Chinese Taipei and Iran. In any global competitive tournament, the ranking of the countries does not matter much if the gap in quality is not that great. The Indian women's team had won a friendly match against Chinese Taipei in October 2021. The first two top teams from each group and two best third placed teams will qualify for the quarterfinal. India can fancy a win against Iran. A draw with China or Chinese Taipei should see the team through for the quarterfinal. In that case India has a potential of facing either Australia or Thailand in the next round. Once into the second round, India should build upon further for qualifying for the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023.
Players to Watch
Going by the convention, one can assume that India will go for defensive tactics against China and Chinese Taipei. It should try to win with a decent margin against Iran. Based on the matches ahead and recent records, the following players will play an important role for India, even though football is a team sport.
Loitongbam Ashalata Devi: The 28 years old Captain of the team has the responsibility of not only leading the Indian defense but also the entire team. Much of India’s chance of progressing well in the tournament will depend on the skills of Ashalata who is considered as one of the best defenders in Asia. She was nominated for AFC player of the year for 2019. Her qualities can be judged from the fact that the other two nominees were China's Li Ying, part of the national team in the 2019 Women's World Cup in France, and Japanese captain Saki Kumagai.
Ngangbam Sweety Devi: Along with Ashalata, this tireless central defender will probably have the highest number of ball touches in the entire tournament for India. Since playing as part of the team Eastern Sporting Union (ESU), which won the inaugural Indian Women League in 2017, she established herself as one of finest ball players in the Indian circuit. There has been no looking back since then for this 22 year old Imphal player. She will play critical roles in aerial games and set pieces.
Manisha Kalyan: Undoubtedly one of the best findings of Indian football in the last few years, the host country will depend heavily on Manisha if it envisages moving beyond the group stage. Debuted in 2018 for the Under 17 squad, this striker from Punjab has established herself as the main force to reckon with. She might turn out to be a true replacement for Ngongam Bala Devi, India’s most decorated player who will miss the tournament due to injury. Manisha was nominated as the Emerging Player of the Year by All India Football Federation (AIFF) in 2021. With her dribbling skills and pace she may create havoc for the opposition teams.
What India Gains
Out of the 19 editions of AFC Women’s Asian Cup, India have played in eight editions. They finished runners-up in 1979 and 1983. India have played a total of 35 matches in the tournament started in 1975. The record reads 16 wins, 3 draws and 16 losses. The last time India played in the tournament was in 2003 when 14 countries participated, and India could not move beyond the group stage.
Indian women’s football has only evolved since the 1970s. The first Senior National Championship for Women was held in 1975 in Uttar Pradesh. The women’s football then was administered by Women’s Football Federation of India (WFFI). In 1991, the WFFI merged with the All India Football Federation (AIFF). It is a known fact that women’s football was treated step motherly for decades since its inception. It reached its nadir when in 2009 FIFA delisted India from its Women’s world rankings for being ‘out of action’ for more than 18 months.
Only during 2019-2020 did the team start getting much needed exposure visits to other developed countries and a significant number of matches to play outside India. Given the fact that due to the current pandemic situation most of the national teams did not get ample opportunities to play competitive games, it may not be surprising if many participating teams cause upsets in the AFC Women’s Asian Cup. One should not be stunned if India makes it to the top 5 (automatic qualification, barring Australia) or to seven (then qualification is through playoffs) and eventually make it to the FIFA World Cup 2023 to be played in Australia as this time the number of countries participating in the World Cup is increased from 24 to 32. From the current forms it looks like China, Republic of Korea and Japan will make the cut for the next FIFA World Cup through this tournament. Australia is qualified as the host nation. There will be another 4 slots from the AFC nations. India have a decent chance to make the cut directly from this AFC Women’s Asia Cup if it finishes in top 5 (barring Australia), else through two slots via playoffs.
Hosting the AFC Women’s Asian Cup will definitely increase the awareness and interest in women’s football in India. The infrastructure created for the tournament will hopefully inspire many young girls and boys to pick up the sport. During the last three years, states like Delhi, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Goa have seen significant increase in women players participating in state leagues. The AFC Women’s Asian Cup may just help push the momentum further. Once there is a large pool of players, with better technical and financial support coming in, Indian women’s football can see a new dawn. “Time isn’t the main thing, it’s the only thing”- time the football stakeholders in India took Miles Davis's statement seriously.
(Biswanath Sinha is with Tata Trusts, Mumbai. Views expressed here are personal)
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