On Sunday, 23rd January Indian women’s team couldn’t take the field against Chinese Taipei in AFC Women’s Asian Cup India 2022 due to high number of covid-19 positive cases in the team. As per various news report Blue Tigresses were having only 9 fit players at their disposal which means 14 players were either infected with covid-19 or injured.  

Thus, according to AFC Competition Regulations, precisely article 4.1, a team has to name a minimum of 13 players for a match to go ahead. If a team has less than 13 players and is not able to participate in a match, it shall be held responsible for the match not taking place and shall be considered to have withdrawn from the relevant competition.

In the opening encounter against debutant Iran, India played a goalless draw, but India was a dominant side in the first match. The second encounter was an important match for Blue Tigresses and a win could have brightened the chances to reach the quarterfinal stage of the competition.  AFC Women’s Asian Cup India 2022 generated considerable interest among football fans in India and Sunday’s encounter against Chinese Taipei was anticipated as a big result day for Indian Women’s Team. But that wait and anticipation remained the longest wait, and the final news turned out to be very sad for everyone concerned with women’s football in India.

Priority at this juncture

Important at this juncture is to focus on covid affected players and officials, who were prepared to give their best for the country and must had their own dreams to take women’s football forward and achieve big success on and off the pitch but all that dreams were shattered. We must understand that they are heartbroken, like many of us but believe me, it is mentally tough for each of these players to suddenly find that they are out of the competition without even playing minimum three games. These players have reached this level with great sacrifices and after putting so much of hard work. Further, some of them might not get a similar kind of opportunity again due to various reasons, which is painful in many ways.

At this juncture we fan and well-wishers of the women’s football in India must focus our energy and effort on making these girls feel proud and giving them hope that there is going to be another opportunity in near future. Above all, wishing affected players speedy recovery and praying for their wellbeing and good health. Afterall, omicron is a variant which spreads faster than any other covid-19 variants and AFC Women’s Asian Cup India 2022 was not an isolated case in the world of football as we have already experienced within India, Hero I-League, ISL were affected and globally the ongoing football competitions/ leagues are also affected, Africa Cup of Nations 2022 (AFCON 2022), Premier League, Bundesliga, etc.

These players deserve our utmost support and care not only during this phase but all through, women’s football in India has a big potential and with our positivity and proactive support to women’s football across India we will reach to a new level.

The background – AFC Women’s Asian Cup India 2022

In 2019 itself India was confident to get the hosting rights for Women’s Asian Cup 2022. Asian Football Confederation (AFC) officially confirmed the hosting rights of the AFC Women’s Asian Cup 2022 to India in June 2020, since then the host team hit the preparatory phase with great energy and purpose which was something encouraging for women’s football in India. The kind of preparation and exposure matches for women’s national team across a few continents including vital competition in Brazil were the best Blue Tigresses ever experienced in the history of women’s football in India.

India was hosting this Asia’s top women’s competition for the second time and being a host country there was a big opportunity for Women’s Team to target a place in the next FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023. Australia being the co-hosts of the Women’s World Cup 2023, there was an extra spot for Asia including an opportunity to be part of two inter-continental play-off places. This was one of the best opportunities for India to go all out and rightly so, India did put best of resources in support of the team during these tough times.   

India’s unprecedented exit has an impact on the competition

AFC Women’s Asian Cup 2022 started with a bang, though there were few cases of covid-19 involving a few teams but there was nothing alarming till Omicron breached India team. AFC competition regulation is very clear in this situation with covid-19 cases and thus, competition will go on as per schedule. Top Asian teams are putting up a fabulous exhibition of football at Women’s Asian Cup. Favourites Australia and Japan have started their campaign impressively. Korea Republic and China too looks a quality side. Philippines surprised everyone with an upset win over Thailand.

When the hosts nation is out of the competition in this way then the whole euphoria around the competition in India has dampened the spirit of hosts fans. Globally, Women’s football is at a critical juncture, the overall acceptance to women’s football have grown many folds and fans are rushing to stadiums to witness women’s play like never. Capacity stadiums for women’s games in few geographies are increasingly becoming normal. The success, progression of women’s team in India would have given the same fillip to the game and there is a belief in the certain section of followers in India that women’s team will qualify for the World Cup earlier and faster than the men’s counterpart. This belief would have strengthened further after seeing India play its full fixture in the Women’s Asian Cup at home but unfortunately, we lost that opportunity. But now our effort should be to focus on next Women’s Asian Cup qualification competition and how we can be best prepared in next four years to show our resolve to be a top women’s football nation in Asia.

The way forward

The priority for India should be to establish a robust domestic structure in women’s football. Currently, there are big struggles for women’s football in India and the primary factor which would drive the growth of the game is competitive structure. How IWL can become a platform for women’s football to keep growing their aspirations in the game? Economic opportunities for women players have to be one of the focus elements to think through. If women players are seen to experience upward mobility in economic terms, then game would see an increased support and participation at all levels. Right now, majority of girls doesn’t pursue the game beyond a certain level as there is little opportunity these girls can get if they are not part of the national team set up.

Youth competitive structure, talent development and professional contracts going to drive women’s game forward in India. There is only one Gokulam Kerala FC, we need many more, who are providing opportunities to girls and making them feel motivated. No doubt, this is a beginning, we can expect more from the champion club going forward. To expect ISL clubs and I-League clubs to go all out on women’s football might not be the best strategy. The plan should be much broader and more open possibilities to transform the women’s football landscape in India.

Some of the States have improved women’s league and with better collaboration there is further scope to improve competitive structure at the State level for women’s football. Not to forget grassroots football, which would require greater focus for engaging required number of girls at the bottom of the pyramid.

The blame game must end, we all are in a habit of blaming others for the weakness or gaps that exist in the system. Each of us who want to see women’s football progress in India must do something, rather than offering lip service. It is easy to point out the gaps but who is executing the solutions that matters, rest all is good sound bites.

Immediate goal

Let’s now focus on FIFA U17 Women’s World Cup India 2022, which is scheduled for October 2022. It will be history making year for women’s football in India and our youth talents will get the biggest platform to showcase their skills and abilities. Youth is our future, and we must go all out with them to make them feel there is no one better than them. Don’t waste a day, provide them the best of support. The chief coach, Thomas Dennerby should be provided with best of support for the best of preparation with India U17 women’s team. These girls will drive few generations of girls that going to come to Indian women’s stage with their intent, attitude, commitment, skills, performances, etc this year.

AFC must be complimented in bringing the biggest women’s competition to India and giving us the opportunity to witness top quality football. We can clearly experience how the top Asian countries are performing on the pitch and it is easy to draw the picture how these top countries reached these far. This is an opportunity for us to learn the best practices and adopt those practical solutions to our problems.

The future of women’s football is far brighter than one can imagine right now. For the time being let’s follow the AFC Women’s Asian Cup India 2022 and learn more about Asian women’s football which would come in handy to build a robust roadmap for women’s football in India.

My personal appreciation to each of the players and officials for giving your best and in your journey ahead we are with you. We together will make women’s football a force in India.

By Shaji Prabhakaran

Football Consultant| Sports Expert| President Football Delhi (FA)| Author| Ex-FIFA/AIFF| Consultant AFC, FIFA, ICC| CIES| Development| Management|

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