In nine appearances in the AFC Women’s Asian Cup so far, India have finished runners-up twice and ended third once. But all those results came in the three editions between 1979 and 1983. In the remaining 11 editions, India could qualify only for six editions and failed to progress past the group stage. Their last appearance in the event was in 2003 when they finished third in their group.
Now as hosts of the 20th edition of the premier football competition for women in Asia, India, ranked 55th in FIFA Rankings, will be hoping to bring back those glory days and at least reach the quarter-finals — the target set by head coach Thomas Dennerby.
On Thursday, they start their quest for glory against Iran, probably the easiest match in the four-team Group A in which the other teams are eight-time champions China (ranked 19) and three-time winners Chinese Taipei (ranked 39). Iran, ranked 70th and making their debut in the event, are the lowest-ranked team in Group A.
If Dennerby’s side has to achieve its target of reaching the quarter-finals then it will have to beat Iran in their first match in Group A at the Dr. DY Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai on Thursday evening. Both China and Chinese Taipei are quite strong and the win against Iran will put India in competition to be the two best-placed third-placed teams to make it to the quarter-finals in the championship in which 12 teams have been divided into three groups of four each with the top two teams from each group getting a direct berth into the last-eight stage.
“We aim to get into the quarter-finals which is our primary target. If we qualify for the last-eight — anything, and everything can happen. The quarter-finals are a knockout stage, and all teams will be under pressure. Looking ahead, we feel it’s a realistic target that we can achieve. But let’ s take it step by step,” the head coach said.
However, beating Iran may not be as easy as it looks on paper as they are an unknown commodity and could pose some challenges.
“Iran is going to be a real tough game. We have followed them through videos and they are really a fighting (team),” coach Dennerby said in a virtual media interaction. “They (Iran) have a strong defence, they defend very well around their box. It is going to be a challenge for us to score. It is not going to be an easy game. We are hoping that with some creative and good passing game, we can break down their defence,” he added.
Another issue confronting Dennerby is that India go into the event without senior players Sangita Basfore, and Bala Devi, the striker from Manipur who has scored 44 goals for India so far and plays for Rangers in the Scottish League. In her absence, India may struggle to score goals.
But Dennerby said he will have to make do with whoever is available for selection. “It’s sad for the individuals, but we cannot be thinking much about it. We have a lot of players that can create chances and score goals. We have to be good all through the match,” said the coach.
The contingent has been in preparatory camps under Dennerby since August 2021 in Jamshedpur, and have been training in Kochi since the first week of December 2021. The Indian women have, in the process, also travelled to six countries in 2021 which included exposure tours to Brazil, Sweden, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Bahrain, and the UAE.
In comparison, the Iranian team started playing in international football only in 2005 and made it to Asian Cup 2022 by winning a three-team qualifier that included Jordan and Bangladesh.
“Despite our lack of experience, the team is motivated and works hard. We have reached this level and We are ready,” said head coach Maryam Irandoost. “We have analysed the Indian team, and are aware that they are strong and fast. The opener is one for everyone to look forward to.”
The Iran women hope to make up for their lack of experience with enthusiasm towards the sport and eagerness to gain experience.
Dennerby’s side will have to quell Iran’s strong challenge to keep its hopes of reaching the quarter-finals alive.