AFC Women's Asian Cup 2022: India dreams big, Japan bids for supremacy

While host India aims to reach the last eight, champion Japan will look to reaffirm its status as the continent’s best for the third successive time. A star-studded Australia and China will pose the biggest challenges to Japan.

Optimistic: Indian skipper Ashalata Devi is excited about playing in the Asian Cup at the senior level. “It was always a dream to represent India in such big tournaments and we are aiming to qualify for the quarterfinals and create history by reaching the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup,” the 28-year-old centre-back says.   -  AIFF Media

“We are really aiming for the really big tournament… going to be held Down Under,” a cheerful Thomas Dennerby can’t help but look beyond as he outlines the Indian women’s team’s ambitions at the upcoming AFC Asian Cup. The national team coach, of course, is talking about the FIFA Women’s World Cup to be held in Australia and New Zealand next year. No Indian senior football team has ever played in a World Cup. Senior players Ashalata Devi and Yumnam Kamala Devi have also not shied away from expressing their dreams of playing in a football World Cup and making history.

Dennerby’s “realistic target”, though, at the Asian Cup is to qualify for the quarterfinals, which would bring an improbable dream a step closer. The top two from each of the three groups, along with the two best third-placed teams from the groups will make it to the quarterfinals. A semifinal place would assure a World Cup berth.

AFC Women's Asian Cup 2022: Full fixtures list; dates; venues

But according to the FIFA rankings, India is the ninth best-ranked team in the 12-team event. The top-tier domestic league, the Indian Women’s League (IWL), hasn’t found a place in the All India Football Federation (AIFF) calendar since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

India’s first-ever women’s professional league — IWL — was launched in 2016, and 33 matches between six teams are played in the afternoons of February-March. The Asian reigning champion Japan has had an active women’s league since 1989 and has a three-tier pyramid system after it launched a new top-division — WE League — last year. The WE League has 11 teams playing a total of 121 matches.

India’s performance in the Asian Cup — after it was officially recognised by the FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) — isn’t encouraging between 1995 and 2003. India failed to qualify for the last five editions and is playing the 2022 edition as the host nation.

Despite the numbers and circumstances stacked against it, progression into the final-eight stage is not beyond the realms of possibility. Since the Swedish coach’s elevation from the girls’ under-17 team to the senior team, the national side has made notable strides over the past five months. Dennerby has spent a significant amount of time with the squad, improving their fitness and focussing on tactical training. The team also played pre-tournament friendlies in the UAE, Bahrain, Sweden, and Brazil, returning with three wins and six defeats including a victory over the higher-ranked Chinese Taipei, who the Blues will face in their group this month.

Marquee player: Chelsea’s Sam Kerr will lead Australia’s charge in the women’s AFC Asian Cup in India.   -  Reuters

 

While the team was largely outplayed in the four-nation tournament in Brazil against opponents with superior technical ability, Manisha Kalyan’s goal on the counterattack against the current Copa America Femenina champion Brazil gave a glimpse of the threat it possesses. However, it was the matches in the UAE and Bahrain that pleased Dennerby as the team showed better organisation and fitness levels.

India, however, will miss the services of the experienced Rangers forward Bala Devi, who was unable to recover in time for the tournament. The relatively young squad, with an average age of 23, was bolstered by the addition of Kamala Devi, who returned to the set-up after her boycott in 2018 over the then coaching personnel. Midfielder Indumathi Kathiresan, who has been among the best domestic players in recent years, will get an opportunity to showcase her talents on the continental stage.

Skipper Ashalata Devi is excited about playing in the Asian Cup at the senior level. “It was always a dream to represent India in such big tournaments and we are aiming to qualify for the quarterfinals and create history by reaching the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup,” the 28-year-old centre-back says. The squad also has exciting young talents in Kalyan, Pyari Xaxa, Dalima Chibber, Ratnabala Devi and Renu.

RELATED: Quarterfinal berth a 'realistic target' for India coach Dennerby

The tournament will be held behind closed doors, but a good showing could help Indian women’s football to draw newer audiences. “If we go to the quarterfinal, that will be a successful tournament for us and I hope that can encourage a lot of young girls to have these players as their idols and start aiming to play for the national team in five or 10 years,” says Dennerby.

Oinnam Bembem Devi, the most capped Indian international, echoes Dennerby’s sentiments. “The Asian Cup 2022 can motivate and help inspire women footballers of the country. By taking advantage of advertisements as well as mass participation, the coming competition will show the capabilities of women in football,” Bembem says.

Dennerby wants the tournament to bring a positive change for women’s football. “Whatever we do here, the most important thing for a country is the grassroots. The more players that play at a young age will give the head coach more players to select from and so on. From the state team to the national team, the more players you have, the better quality in the end. Hopefully, this can change Indian women’s football for a long time,” he says.

Defending champion: Saki Kumagai of Japan lifts the trophy after winning the AFC Women’s Asian Cup final against Australia at the Amman International Stadium on April 20, 2018 in Amman, Jordan.   -  Getty Images

 

While India aims to reach the last eight, champion Japan will look to reaffirm its status as the continent’s best for the third successive time. A star-studded Australia, which lost the last two finals, led by Chelsea’s Sam Kerr, will pose the biggest challenge to Japan. Australia’s squad is packed with talents from the Women’s Super League and other leading European clubs.

Asian Cup superpower China, which has won the tournament eight times, will be raring to re-establish its supremacy from the 90s with Tang Jiali (Tottenham Hotspur) and Wang Shuang (Wuhan Jianghan University) at the heart of the side.

For more updates, follow Sportstar on :