Preview: Women's Asian Cup a massive opportunity and equally big challenge for India

Kamala Devi in action against Bangladesh during the SAFF women's football championship in 2017 AFP / DIPTENDU DUTTA

Coach Thomas Dennerby wants the Indian football team to be relaxed, self-confident and treat their three group matches at the 2022 AFC Women's Asian Cup like any other match.

The team has after all played a number of big teams in 2021 to prepare for this very moment - playing the top continental championship and a FIFA World Cup qualifier at home. But that might prove to be easier said than done. Friendlies, even against a team like Brazil, are a different ball game to what is perhaps one of the most important tournaments for Indian women's football.

The Asian Cup is both a massive opportunity and an equally big challenge for the Indian women's football team.

India are playing the final leg of the Asian Cup for the first time since 2003 by virtue of being hosts. The tournament is also a qualifier for the 2023 FIFA World Cup so there is something bigger on the line.

India are grouped with two of the most successful teams, China and Chinese Taipei, as well as enterprising newcomers Iran, who they open their campaign against on Thursday. The advantage of playing at home is all but negated as the tournament is being held without fans due to Coronavirus.

If they can finish third in the group with good performances, they will give themselves a strong chance of a FIFA World Cup appearance. That is also the target that Dennerby has set them.

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"Our first target is to get to quarter-finals, we think we have a realistic chance to do that," Dennerby reiterated at the pre-match press conference.

Realistic, yes. But to be practical, this hinges on India's performance in the very first match. Iran are the lowest ranked team in Group A at 70th in the world, against India's 55th. Eight-time champions China are 19th while Taipei are 39th in the FIFA rankings. Going by the charts, the match against Iran is crucial to India's chances even though the team did beat Taipei last year.

But it's not going to be easy against a team fast rising on the women's football circuit. Iran have qualified for their first Asian Cup with wins over Jordan and Bangladesh, including a thrilling penalty shootout. Iranian club side Shahrdari Sirjan had also beaten India's Gokulam Kerala at the AFC Women's Club Championships in 2021 and were runners-up in that tournament, with Afsaneh Chatrenoor being the top scorer. India has not played Iran too often and the last time the two sides met, was back in 2019, when India won 1-0.

Dennerby also rated Iran's technical play highly. "Iran will be a really tough one for us. They are organised and they will play low, defending. They also have one really good striker that's always on the run. So, even if we maybe dominate the game, as a defender you always have to be on your toes because they can counter attack. They are also good on set pieces, they scored a lot of goals on free-kicks and corners, so we also need to be very sharp," he said.

The equation is simple - India have to hit the ground running from the very first minute, literally and figuratively.

Swedish coach Dennerby, appointed as senior team head coach only about five months back, has spearheaded the intense preparation for this competition. By his count, there have been more than 200 sessions for football, fitness, training, technique, tactics and game time. He also roped in Jane Tornqvist as the strength and conditioning coach and used the South American tour as a blueprint of how to play full matches and recover in a couple of days, something that will be a vital factor in the group stages.

The Indian squad has been in the national camp for a good part of the last year. They have also played in six countries (Brazil, Sweden, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Bahrain and the UAE) on preparatory tours. Friendly matches against foreign sides has undoubtedly increased confidence and match awareness. But this has also meant that many of the top players have missed on competitive game time at the national level with no participation at the Senior National Championship and the cancellation of the Indian Women's League amid the pandemic. (It should be noted that the Indian Super League and I-league went ahead in bio-bubbles.)

Will this lack of competition affect the team at an event where the level and quality and stakes will be high as ever remains to be seen. But this is another aspect where India's on-field performance gains even higher significance: a good showing would put more pressure on the powers that be to ensure more and regular domestic competition in the sport's current top-down development ecosystem. In that sense, the Indian team carries a much bigger flag, as is so often the case with women's sport.

The team, though, is ready and excited for both the chance and challenge. Captain Ashalata Devi and Hemam Shilky Devi spoke about the opportunity this provided Indian football. Shilky, one the youngest members of the squad absorbed from the junior system after the cancelation of the 2020 U17 FIFA World Cup, is symbolic of the brave gamble on youth Dennerby has taken. The average age of the Indian team is just about 23, with 15 players under 25.

Especially in the absence of star striker Bala Devi (ACL injury), the onus will be on the younger players to deliver bulk of the goals. The return of the seasoned Yumnam Kamala Devi, combined with the energy of Manisha Kalyan and Pyari Xaxa will be crucial in front of the goal. India's backline can be a solid unit with Ashalata marshalling the charge alongwith veteran Dalima Chhibber and the upcoming Sanju Yadav, while there are a number of versatile midfielders like Indumathi Kathiresan and Nongmeithem Ratanbala Devi in the mix as well.

It all comes down to the next week, three games and an outing that will determine the course of Indian women's football for the near future.