When the Indian women’s football team, host of the 2022 edition of the AFC Women’s Asian Cup after 43 long years, was forced to withdraw from the tournament after an outbreak of COVID-19 cases in the squad, saying spirits were deflated — be it of players or fans — is no exaggeration.

‘Speechless, heartbroken and sad’ — Indian defender Dalima Chhibber tweeted after the news broke. Australia’s talismanic striker Sam Kerr, who is of Indian origin, sent a heartfelt consolatory message to the girls. Veteran Indian player Yumnam Kamala Devi announced her retirement from professional football, having been robbed of a fitting swansong. Mumbai and Pune, the two cities which hosted the event this year, had banner ads and cutouts along the routes to the stadium featuring the Blue Tigresses, a constant reminder of a cruel hand fate had dealt to a side which spent a better part of 2021 just preparing towards this very tournament. While it is little consolation for the faithful, the tournament set out to compensate.

From China winning a record-extending ninth crown to nations like the Philippines and Vietnam making it to the FIFA World Cup for the first time, here’s a recap of the action from the Asian Cup and the road forward.

SHUI-QINGXIA-GETTY

Proud moment: The victory was twice as sweet for China’s head coach Shui Qingxia who became the first person to win the title as a player and a head coach after having won the tournament five times in her playing days.

 

Comeback queen China regains crown

The Steel Roses entered this edition as an eight-time winner — twice as many titles as any other participating nation — but had not made it to the winner’s podium since 2006. Fittingly then, this team eased into the mould of a comeback queen — bouncing back from deficits in three games including the final against first-time finalist Korea Republic to take home the prized silverware after a nail-biting 3-2 win.

The victory was twice as sweet for head coach Shui Qingxia who became the first person to win the title as a player and a head coach after having won the tournament five times in her playing days.

READ: China makes stunning revival to beat S. Korea, wins 9th title

For Shui and the Chinese team which will hope to make a splash at the 2023 World Cup in Australia/New Zealand, the win is a massive shot in the arm. “This victory also gives us direction for new goals. Everyone in the team will be motivated, there will be obstacles along the way but we will have to do our best for the future development of women’s football in China PR,” Shui said after the final.

The team’s win has triggered equal pay conversations in footballing circles in China again with comparisons drawn to the men’s team, whose hopes to make it to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar fizzled out with a 1-3 loss to Vietnam in the qualifiers around the same time the girls were playing in India.

KERR-GETTY

Phenomenal: Australia’s Sam Kerr scored seven goals in this edition of the tournament, surpassing Aussie legend Tim Cahill as the nation’s leading international goal-scorer.

 

Hello, World Cup

China is the only established ‘Asian giant’ which had luck this time around. Japan and Australia, considered easy choices to make the final given their consistency and well-travelled squad members, were sent packing in the knockouts. Meanwhile, a few other nations were laying foundations for footballing legacies of their own. Vietnam and the Philippines qualified for the FIFA Women’s World Cup for the first time after inspired campaigns. While the Philippines made it through to the semifinal, Vietnam fought to secure the last direct ticket for Asian nations in the playoffs. This is particularly heartening for Vietnam which began its campaign on the back of a COVID outbreak. Korea Republic, naturally disappointed after leading 2-0 for two thirds of the final, has more reasons to be optimistic.

Given Colin Bell’s side was always about the big picture and long-term plans, its World Cup preparations seem to be headed in the right direction. “A lot of people doubted us but we fought in every single game and now we’ve made a name for ourselves. Philippines you’re going to remember this team and you’re going to see us in the World Cup. So don’t forget about us, we’re coming back,” Philippines midfielder Sarina Bolden said after losing the semifinal against Korea 0-2. Safe to say these maiden entrants will be stories fans and pundits alike will watch out for, come 2023.

Logistics in a post-COVID world

Pulling off a multi-team tournament in the middle of a COVID-19 spike in a country as populous as India is a challenge, hardness of the bio-bubble notwithstanding. The Asian Football Federation and the All India Football Federation had a challenging task to conduct the tournament safely and this endeavour was not without its problems. There were COVID-19 cases among organising units and within team bubbles — enough to rule the host out of contention after playing a solitary game.

“Unfortunately, the COVID cases started rising around the same time the tournament kicked-off, making the situation quite challenging for us, with Mumbai and the rest of the country clocking a record number of cases. So, yes, it was inevitable that it did affect us,” Nandini Arora and Ankush Arora, project directors of the Local Organising Committee told Sportstar .

“We made two teams working alternatively, without interacting with each other. This ensured that work could go on at the venues even if someone tested positive. The service providers were all required to have back up manpower accredited and on standby to ensure work could go on,” the LOC added.

A team of 50 along with over 200 volunteers put the tournament together across Mumbai and Pune. This is besides daily wage workers who sanitised and maintained the playing surface and stadiums.

“Everyone had to mandatorily undergo an RT PCR test every 72 hours and only upon testing negative were they given a sticker which permits them to enter the stadium premises or other competition-related working areas. Labour did not always understand a positive test especially when there were no symptoms. It took a fair bit of educating but we had free testing and camps in both venues for those working,” the LOC explained.

READ: Covid wave washes away India’s AFC Cup dreams

India has expressed interest to hold the AFC Men's Asian Cup qualifying round and also host the FIFA U17 Women’s World Cup in October this year and the learnings around the inevitable challenges to the bio-bubble will be crucial if the country hopes to include the added challenge of spectator presence.

What next for the Blue Tigresses?

As things stand, what’s next for the Indian women’s side is not quite clear. Head coach Thomas Dennerby who has taken some time off after a hectic passage of time handling the U-17 girls and the senior team in quick succession will return to the U-17 outfit for the World Cup. On the domestic front, the AIFF last organised the Indian Women’s League in 2020 with Gokulam Kerala FC emerging victorious. AIFF General Secretary Kushal Das told Sportstar last September that the IWL will be organised after the Asian Cup in the March/April window but there has been no formal communication on the same as yet.