O. Bembem Devi had switched on the television at 7.30pm on Sunday. The former India captain was hoping to see how the team fares against Chinese Taipei after the draw with Iran in its AFC Women’s Asian Cup opener. She felt odd that there was no live football, until being told about what had transpired.
“I felt so sad,” the former midfielder said over phone on Monday. “For the girls, for the team.”
The sentiment has been shared by many. In a rare, few moments under the spotlight for the Indian women’s football team, it was lights out a lot sooner than imagined. A Covid outbreak within the camp inside the bubble in Navi Mumbai meant India couldn’t field a minimum 13 players on Sunday, forcing them to withdraw from the match and, as the AFC officially confirmed on Monday, from the tournament they are hosting.
Multiple teams, and indeed tournaments, across sport have been impacted by the pandemic. The AFC Women’s Asian Cup, though, was to be more than just a mere event for India. Not only was the prestigious continental championship being hosted at home with India playing in it after 19 years, it presented Indian women’s football with a much-needed springboard for a promising present and a hopeful future from a blurry past.
Over the last year or so, to prepare a bunch of players solely for this tournament, the team was sent on six exposure tours that included friendlies against sides like Tunisia, Bahrain, Chinese Taipei and some Swedish clubs, among others. India also played a tournament in Brazil and competed against the mighty hosts a couple of months ago. Compare that to a six-year period prior to 2019, where the women’s team played a solitary international friendly apart from taking part in regional competitions like the South Asian Games and the SAFF Women’s Championship.
Getting a semblance of regular game time was a bonus for the Indian footballers; even domestically, the Indian Women’s League (IWL) launched in 2016 runs barely for a month, while many states do not even have a senior tournament for women.
In this backdrop, hosting a big-ticket AFC women’s event, with India playing in it, was massive, which has now turned into a massive opportunity lost.
“It will have a big impact,” Kuntala Ghosh Dastidar, former national player and coach, said. “This was a great chance for the girls to play in India, do well and achieve something. They have missed out on all these things. Now they will have to wait longer to play in such top-level competitions.”
She hoped all the backing that the All India Football Federation provided in the lead-up to this—exposure tours, friendlies, quality support staff, etc—would continue. “Because if it stops, it will be a big problem,” she added.
“The next generation won’t come up. It’s important for the process to continue despite this setback.”
Harshika Jain, captain of Mumbai-based Kenkre FC which competes in the IWL, is one among the next-in-line working her way up to try and crack into the national setup. She watched India’s first game with awe, hoping it was just a beginning. “After seeing them in the IWL, I was looking forward to seeing them play at the big stage. This is devastating not just for India and this team but also for the next generation of players hoping to be there,” Jain said.
According to Bembem Devi, this team reflected the improvements, individually and as a unit, made over the last few years. “In the last 6-12 months, they had given everything for this in terms of training and preparation. But I will tell the girls: ‘You still have a future. Focus on your individual development after this. Don’t lose your focus. This is not the last chance’,” she said.
‘On high alert’
Even as the heartbroken Indian players and staff remained isolated in their hotel, four matches were held as per schedule on Monday. The AFC also formally struck off India’s name from the tournament, terming their matches “null and void”.
It’s not just the Indian camp that has been hit with Covid cases, which in their case increased exponentially to a dozen from two in the past three days. A few other teams too are grappling with it, although their matches have remained unaffected so far.
Philippines had a couple of players missing due to the virus in their 4-0 defeat to Australia on Monday. “We’ve had Covid over the last five days in our group, having to manage that at the hotel with trying to play a football tournament,” head coach Alen Stajcic said.
“We’re on high alert within our team. It’s hard to keep a tight bubble. We haven’t done anything wrong here and still had cases in our team.”
South Korea, who beat Myanmar 2-0, too did not have a full squad to pick from. “This tournament is not like an ordinary tournament. All the teams are going through the difficulties because of Covid,” South Korea captain Kim Hyeri said speaking through a translator.
“But the important thing for the teams is to finish the tournament.”
For India, unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.