Women’s football hopes to overcome Asian Cup setback

Dalima Chibber was expressing her state of mind but the otherwise cheery right-back might as well have been speaking for the entire Indian team, whose matches in the AFC Asian Cup were declared null and void by the continental body on Monday, following a Covid-19 outbreak within the squad.

A day after the hosts were forced to withdraw from the tournament after they were unable to field a team for their group stage match against Chinese Taipei on Sunday, it is learnt that two more Indian players tested positive, taking the total number of infected players to 14. The players and members of support staff have been kept in isolation at the team hotel in Navi Mumbai, where seven other teams and tournament organisers are staying in a bubble and are on ‘high alert’.

India is not the only team whose bubble has been breached. Covid cases have been reported in at least five other teams but unlike India, where more than half of the squad got infected, the cases in other teams are isolated.

Five South Korean players and officials are down with Covid-19, officials said, while on the eve of the tournament which began on January 20, Vietnam, Japan and China had also reported cases.

Philippines coach Alen Stajcic said after the 0-4 defeat to Australia that ‘a couple of players and a staff member’ in their team have tested positive as well. While not naming the players who tested positive, Stajcic said the Philippines were forced to play without one of their ‘key players’ and fielded their ‘number three goalkeeper’ for their Group B match against Australia at the Mumbai Football Arena.

“Look, we are taking extreme caution. We are on high alert within our team and doing everything we possibly can,” Stajcic said. “I was really heartbroken for the Indian team last night… to see how much effort they put in preparation for the tournament and the fact that they’re hosting the tournament, I was really heartbroken. From a football perspective, this is a massive lost opportunity to show their skills.”

Indeed, this is a ‘lost opportunity’ for India. After years of preparation and playing friendly matches in different countries, the Asian Cup was a chance to gauge their standing in the continent. The team had shown promise in their tournament opener against Iran and the match against Taipei, ranked 16 places above India at world number 39, would have been a good indicator of their progress.

Now, as other teams battle it out for continental glory, the hosts are locked inside their hotel rooms in isolation.

Road ahead

All India Football Federation (AIFF) general secretary Kushal Das said there were a few positive cases among the hotel staff that was in contact with the players. “It’s unfortunate but this could have happened to any team, anywhere,” Das said.

He added that the Asian Cup was just ‘the first step’ for women’s football in India. The team’s coach Thomas Dennerby, meanwhile, will return to the under-17 women’s side, his original assignment before he was moved to the senior team, for their World Cup, which will also be played in India in October. The players, meanwhile, will next compete at the Hangzhou Asian Games in September.

“Thomas will be there for the U-17 World Cup. He will remain an integral part of women’s football coaching at all levels at least for this year,” Das said. “For the senior team, this was just the beginning. This women’s team has shown promise, we have many tournaments coming up, including the Asian Games.”

Before that, they are likely to compete in the domestic league. However, that too has been affected because of the pandemic. The Indian Women’s League (IWL), which was last held in 2019-20, was set to take place in April but owing to the third wave of the pandemic, the states haven’t been able to finish their own leagues, Das said.

“The states were supposed to complete by February 15, but now we aren’t sure when they will be able to finish it. So, the IWL might have to be delayed although we will still try to hold it in April,” Das said.

For now, however, he is hoping the Asian Cup will proceed without any further incidents, a sentiment shared by many, including South Korea’s Ji So-yun, who was named the Player of the Match in her side’s 1-0 win over Myanmar on Monday.

“This tournament is not like an ordinary tournament due to the situation,” the Chelsea midfielder said after the match. “All teams are going through difficulties. The important thing is to finish the tournament safely.”

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