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Covid wave washes away India’s AFC Asian Cup dreams

The AFC Women’s Asian Cup in Maharashtra was supposed to be a landmark tournament for women’s football in the country.

While the football has been scintillating, the third wave of COVID-19 has laid waste to India’s opportunity to dream big, ending its tournament prematurely.

A day before the tournament opener, India registered three Covid cases. Thomas Dennerby’s side still finished dominantly in a goalless draw against newcomers Iran. Any hope of building on the promise was quashed after the positive cases snowballed across the squad to leave the team with just nine available players on the day of the second game against Chinese Taipei. India couldn’t field a team for the game and thereby was forced to remove itself from the tournament. India’s result against Iran was declared null and void.

Troubled times: Medical team members wait alongside the ground staff after the match between India and Chinese Taipei was called off after several players from the Indian team tested positive for Covid positive during the AFC Women’s Asian Cup tournament at DY Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai.   

India wasn’t the only team who had a bubble breach but no other team had its squad decimated to such an extent. All India Football Federation (AIFF) chief Praful Patel expressed his sadness on the lost opportunity for the Indian players and said no fingers would be pointed at for the misfortune. Two days later, Dennerby, in a scathing statement, laid the blame squarely at the feet of the Asian Football Confederation for its poor organisation and handling of the bubble.

Amidst the chaos, the heavyweights laid down their markers and breezed through to reach the knockout stage. Japan, China, Australia and South Korea made the quarterfinals without a scare.

Two-time defending champion Japan finished top of its group ahead of South Korea despite the unavailability of its best player Mana Iwabuchi.

The Arsenal forward tested positive for Covid before the team’s opening game but midfielder Yui Hasegawa rose to the occasion for Nadeshiko. Iwabuchi made a return to the XI in the 7-0 quarterfinal win over Thailand.

Australia made the loudest noise when it began the campaign with a ruthless 18-0 win over Indonesia. Skipper Sam Kerr led the scoring with five, which cemented her place as the greatest goal-scorer (56 goals) in Australian football history as the Aussies hit nine in each half. The star-studded Matildas finished the group stage with three wins and 24 goals.

Overjoyed: The biggest story of the tournament has been the Philippines’ first-ever FIFA World Cup qualification. The Malditas, a squad stacked with US-born Filipinos, beat Chinese Taipei in the penalty shoot-out to book their place in the semifinal and qualify for the World Cup finals.   –  AIFF MEDIA

But their aspirations came crashing down in the quarterfinals when they drew a blank in front of goal with South Korea dumping them out courtesy a Ji So-yun stunner in the 87th minute. South Korea and Chelsea midfielder So-yun scored three goals in the group stages, including a late equaliser against Japan.

The biggest story of the tournament so far has been the Philippines’ first-ever FIFA World Cup qualification. The Malditas, a squad stacked with US-born Filipinos, finished behind Australia in their group with two big wins before they beat Chinese Taipei in the penalty shoot-out to book their place in the semifinal and qualify for the World Cup.

China has had a breezy run with a 4-0, a 7-0 and 3-1 win with diminutive midfielder Wang Shuang pulling the strings in attack. Shuang has five goals and three assists from three matches. She also crucially opened the scoring before setting up two goals in the comeback win over Vietnam in the quarterfinals.

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