Indian Women's Team at AFC Asian Cup Hit by COVID; Could This Have Been Avoided?
India were forced to withdraw from the Women's AFC Asian Cup after more than a dozen COVID-19 cases hit their camp.
On Sunday evening, the Indian football fraternity was preparing to cheer on the likes of Aditi Chauhan and Ashalata Devi in their game against Chinese Taipei in Group A of the Women's Asian Cup. However, a certain uneasiness began building up amongst the fans as news of the dreaded COVID-19 virus affecting the Indian team broke out.
India, which was playing the tournament after 19 years, eventually could not field a team for their game against Chinese Taipei, leading to a forced withdrawal from the tournament. The team – it may be recalled – had already reported two COVID cases before their opening game against Iran, which ended in a 0-0 draw.
Out of a squad of 23, a dozen players and four support staffers had tested positive ahead of India's second game, The Indian Express reported. Two more were out injured, and of the remaining, another couple of players had symptoms of COVID-19.
To avoid the worst, India would need a minimum of 13 players, including a goalkeeper. But now that that's not possible, the hosts of the Women's AFC Asian Cup would eventually have to exit the competition, as per the AFC rules.
Having prepared and worked hard for this day for the last couple of years, including pitting themselves against the champion side Brazil recently, this was understandably devastating for the team and their fans. Terming the situation a 'heartbreak' would be no overstatement.
Could This Have Been Avoided?
Considering the unpredictable nature of COVID-19, especially with the recent and more transmissible variant Omicron in the picture, a definitive answer to whether the situation could have been avoided is difficult to arrive at. However, the third wave of the pandemic had led to a slew of disruptions in sport in India.
Domestic cricket tournaments were stopped midway, with further games being postponed indefinitely by the BCCI. The AIFF, too, had to postpone games in the Indian Super League and suspend the I-League for six weeks, both of which were happening in bio-bubbles. Badminton games took a hit as well, with the virus affecting the Indian Open and the Syed Modi International. All of the aforementioned transpired in the first month of the year 2022.
SAI centres, Shooting nationals, Table Tennis nationals, Weightlifting nationals – to name a few – were all affected in some way or the other due to the third wave. Cities such as Mumbai, New Delhi, Kolkata, and Bengaluru were bringing back curfews and weekend lockdowns. In all, the situation seemed grim and the bio-bubbles weren't at their most effective.
There, however, was no word about a possible change in schedule for the Women's Asian Cup, which was going to be played in Mumbai. In fact, early in January, the situation was being monitored by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and Local Organising Committee (LOC).
"We are aware of the existing situation and the COVID-19 numbers in Maharashtra and India. The LOC and AFC are closely monitoring the situation. The LOC is also in close contact with the Government of Maharashtra on all matters," Kushal Das, general secretary of the AIFF, told ESPN. "As for the tournament, everything is on track, as per plan. The tournament is happening in a bio-bubble, with utmost precaution and safety. We are working on further strengthening these measures. We are well prepared to face this challenge and looking to host the tournament in the safest possible way."
Though the AIFF – with the ISL in Goa – was among the first to kickstart the top-flight sport on Indian soil in a bio-bubble during the pandemic in 2020, one is left to wonder whether a postponement of the ongoing Asian Cup was absolutely out of the question.
After all, the tournament was initially meant to happen in 2021 and had to be postponed due to the pandemic. Mind you, the Japan women's team too had a positive case, with star forward Mana Iwabuchi testing positive after arriving in India. The Japan Times reported that she was asymptomatic and had not been in close contact with the other members of the team because she had travelled separately for the event. South Korea, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam too had reported positive COVID-19 cases inside the bio-bubble.
One might argue that the domestic calendar could get affected with another postponement, especially with the Indian Women's League (last played in February 2020) scheduled for the first part of the summer this year.
Between hindsight and foresight, the latter often trumps the former, which then serves as something learnt.
What Did This Tournament Mean for the Indian Women's Team?
India was in the Women's Asian Cup for the first time in 19 years, the last appearance being in 2003. Ranked 55th in the FIFA rankings, India was in with an outside chance of making it to the FIFA Women's World Cup, provided they made it to the semi-finals of the tournament. A quarter-final berth, at least, is what the coach Thomas Dennerby had set as the realistic target.
And with matches against IR Iran and Chinese Taipei considered winnable, apart from the difficult fixture against China, a berth in the top eight wasn't a distant dream. India had spent the better part of two years touring through Europe, Asia, and South America, playing high-quality opponents in the build-up to the 20th edition of the Asian Cup.
The women's team, in the years gone by, have finished runners-up twice and second runners-up once. But all of those results were in the three editions between 1979 and 1983. As for the remaining 11 editions, India could qualify only for six and failed to progress past the group stage.
While that is in terms of international tournaments for the senior team, the Asian Cup was definitively a chance to make the spotlight stronger for women's football in the country.
A good showing at the Asian level would have also given the team more confidence going forward, and the snowball effect of that cannot be discounted. Women’s football in India has been on the rise, thanks to the Asian Cup, the upcoming FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup, and icons like Bala Devi playing for the Scottish powerhouse Rangers FC. And it would be quite disappointing to see the crest fall to a trough abruptly.
The whole country was witness to how there's been an upsurge in the interest in the javelin event in athletics since Neeraj Chopra won his gold at the Tokyo Olympics.
What's Next for the Indian Women's Football Team?
First things first, after the players recover from COVID-19, the administrators should make dealing with the mental trauma of this situation their top priority. It is not an easy situation to be in, and to have to exit a continental tournament under such circumstances makes things worse for those involved. Just ask the men's senior team captain Sunil Chhetri, who along with others, is not having the easiest time in the ISL due to the bio-bubble life.
Simultaneously, the AIFF would ideally work along the lines of making the domestic structure more compact and robust.
Even with its massive structural problems, women's football in India was picking up momentum, and it is never too late to start plugging the gaps. A competitive structure and professional contracts will only encourage more players, paving the way for more talent to emerge out of various parts of the country.
And while that is easier said than done, the buck ultimately stops with the AIFF in terms of ensuring that the momentum garnered through the preparations for the Asian Cup doesn't wither away.
"We don't plan well for the future. In India, we make teams for the tournaments, and then after that, all of it disintegrates. Unless we plan for the future, we won't be able to move forward. The federation and state associations need to work on plans to introduce more game time through tournaments at the school and college levels to develop quality," ace footballer Bala Devi told News18.
The senior women's team has suffered a setback for now, but up next, in terms of international tournaments, is the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup India 2022, which is scheduled for October 2022. The future of the pandemic is unknown, but foresight and lessons from previous instances should ideally make their presence felt.
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