The 20th edition of the AFC Women's Asian Cup kicks off on the 20th of January in India, and with 12 teams featuring across 30 games in 18 days in three stadiums, we're in for a veritable feast of football. Here's what we can expect:
What's the format like?
The AFC has 47 member nations eligible to participate (with Northern Mariana Islands the latest inductee in 2020), but only 28 teams took part in the qualification tournament, with four teams (hosts India, and the top 3 teams of the previous tournament - Japan, Australia and China) already having qualified, and eight group winners progressing to the finals.
This is the first time the finals will have twelve teams, instead of the usual eight - Iran are making their debut at these finals. There are three groups of four, with the top two and two best third-placed teams progressing to the quarterfinals. The four teams that make the semifinals also automatically qualify for the FIFA World Cup in Australia and New Zealand in 2023.
Easy enough right? Well, it gets complicated from here. Since Australia are hosts of the 2023 World Cup, their progression in the tournament plays an important role in deciding who else qualifies. There are 6 direct qualification and two inter-continental playoff spots for AFC member nations.
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In the event Australia reaches the semifinals, there will be two games between the four teams that lost the quarterfinals (QF1 vs QF3, QF2 vs QF4). The winners of either game progress to the World Cup, with the losers advancing to the inter-continental playoffs.
If Australia lose their quarterfinal, the other three losing quarterfinalists play a round-robin, with the table topper progressing to the World Cup while the other two advance to the playoffs.
If Australia are eliminated in the group stage, then the four losing quarterfinalists repeat scenario 1 (QF1 vs. QF3, QF2 vs. QF4).
However, the winners of both these games play another game to decide who directly qualifies for the World Cup, with the loser advancing to the inter-continental playoffs. The last playoff spot is decided by the losers of the first round of games playing each other.
Isn't there uh... Covid?
In short yes, there's Covid. However, the entire tournament is taking place in a bio-bubble within the state of Maharashtra in the cities of Mumbai, Navi Mumbai and Pune.
In the event the worst should happen and Covid does breach the bubble, AIFF President and Chairman of the LOC, Praful Patel, noted the games would go ahead, saying "The affected player or players will be isolated but the teams will be fielded as long as 13 players (in each team) are available."
Each of the 12 teams has travelled with 23-member squads.
So who are the favourites?
The Matildas are expected to waltz their way to final, having done the same in four of the last five editions of the tournament. However, Australia have only won one of those four finals, in 2010, losing the previous two to Japan (2014, 2018). Their preparation hasn't been the best either, with Australia shipping 37 goals in the 16 games they've played under coach Tony Gustavsson. In the build up to this tournament, the Matildas did beat high-caliber opposition in the form of Brazil, but were brought down to earth with a loss and a draw against USA in their most recent outing. It's not been much of an improvement after their painful fourth-place finish at the Tokyo Olympics last year. Yet, competition within Asia isn't as fierce and they're legitimate contenders for the trophy.
The defending champions, Japan, are a team in transition, with only 11 of the 23 players who won the previous edition featuring this time around. They've lost stalwarts Mizuho Sakaguchi and Rumi Utsugi, part of the 2011 FIFA World Cup winning squad, although captain Saki Kumagai and MVP of the 2018 edition, Mana Iwabuchi are still around. With West Ham midfielder Yui Hasegawa in tow, Japan will be hoping to bounce back from a quarterfinal exit in the Tokyo Olympics, where they only won only one of their four games.
Which teams are dark horses?
China are no longer the most dominant team in Asia, and they're coming off the back of a terrible Tokyo Olympics, where they were blanked 0-5 by Brazil and 2-8 by Netherlands, with a 4-4 draw against Zambia their lone point as they finished bottom of the group stage. However, at the Asian level, China did squeak past South Korea to qualify for the Olympics, while also having thrashed the likes of Thailand and Chinese Taipei in 2020. Wang Shuang, the AFC Women's Player of the Year in 2018, will no doubt be heavily involved in midfield alongside Tottenham Hotspur star Tang Jiali, if China are to pull off a surprise in this tournament.
Unlike their northern counterparts, South Korea have never won the tournament, despite often boasting strong teams at the Asian level. After their failure to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, South Korea took on USA in a couple of friendlies, managing a 0-0 draw before a demoralizing 0-6 loss in the next game. They've faced New Zealand since, beating them 2-1 before losing the next game 0-2. They've been drawn in the 'group of death' alongside Japan, Vietnam and Myanmar, which might make their quest to end their title drought that much harder.
Look out for Vietnam as well, who've come through qualification with some eye-opening scorelines against Maldives and Tajikistan.
Who's been the most successful?
China. And how.
They've won eight of the 19 editions, although seven of those came consecutively between 1986 and 1999. It was an incredible spell, with China going on a 15-year unbeaten run, that was ended by North Korea in 2001. The last time China won the tournament was in 2006, when they defeated Australia on penalties in the final.
North Korea and Chinese Taipei are second with 3 tournament victories each, with the latter making their much-awaited return to the competition, after last featuring in 2008. Japan are next with two trophies, while Australia, Thailand and New Zealand have won the title once each.
Who are the best players?
Sam Kerr is the obvious choice here, the Australian talisman needs one goal to reach the 50 goal mark in international competitions, which would take her level with Tim Cahill as the leading Australian top-scorer. The 28-year-old has been in stellar form for Chelsea this season with 9 goals and 3 assists in 9 WSL games, while also scoring 4 and assisting 2 in 6 UWCL games.
Australia aren't short on other talents, with Arsenal star Caitlin Foord and Tottenham forward Kyah Simon also likely to shine in this tournament.
Mana Iwabuchi absolutely ran the show for Japan in the previous edition, and while she's only impressed in bursts for Arsenal this season, one can expect her to find form against Asian opposition with ease. Alongside veteran defender Saki Kumagai, Iwabuchi will hope to lead Japan to their third consecutive title come February 6th.
Ji So-yun burst onto the scene as a 15-year old for South Korea and has gone on to become one of the best midfielders in the world. The 30-year-old has an impressive honours list at club level for Chelsea, but the one remaining gap in her CV remains success at the international level. Wang Shuan's midfield vision will be critical for China as they aim to re-conquer the continent, with the former PSG star keen to prove her doubters wrong after returning back to China.
Any young talents to keep an eye on?
Mary Fowler and Ellie Carpenter have already racked up plenty of experience with the Matildas, but 18-year-old Fowler and 21-year-old Carpenter represent the foundation upon which Australia will build their next generation. Fowler, a diminutive forward, already grabbed headlines with an extra-time winner against Great Britain in the Tokyo Olympics, which sent Australia through to the semifinals. Carpenter, meanwhile, made her debut at the age of 15 and in the six years since has racked up 50+ caps in defence for Australia.
Hajar Dabbaghi represents Iran's great hope for the future, with the 22-year-old already making her mark for the national team as they qualified for the very first time. The forward's canny eye for a goal was on display as she racked up five goals en-route to qualification, including a stellar display in a 5-0 win over Bangladesh.
Manisha Kalyan already made headlines in India by scoring the country's first ever goal against Brazil. The forward idolizes Ronaldinho, and while her own playing style is a lot more direct, she represents Indian hopes in this tournament. Blessed with pace and trickery, Kalyan will definitely be at the forefront if India are to make a dent in this competition.
It's a bit disingenuous to put Zahra Muzdalifah in this list, when the 20-year-old has already achieved a fair bit of notoriety (1M Instagram followers). However, while she's a household name in football-mad Indonesia, Muzdalifah is not as known to the wider world, and this represents a great chance for the forward to showcase her skills.
How will the hosts fare?
By their coach's own admission, India are aiming for the quarterfinals. The last time India hosted the competition though, they made the final of the tournament, which is a good omen, but a scenario unlikely to reoccur. Drawn alongside China, Iran and Chinese Taipei, India fancy their chances, especially after having beaten Chinese Taipei last year. Iran are debutants in this competition, but ought not to be underestimated, while China are perhaps a bridge too far.
Qualification to the quarterfinals is a genuine possibility if India finish third in the group at worst, but they might likely come unstuck against genuine quality Asian opposition. India did look promising in their pre-tournament games against Venezuela, Chile and Brazil, but given the lack of competitive club action at a domestic level, they might find things a bit tough.
With no spectators allowed in the stadiums to cheer them on, India may lose out on any advantage of being hosts, although their familiarity with the conditions might hand them a slight edge. Either way, it's an upward curve for Indian women's football as they occupy the national spotlight - and they'll be chomping at the bit to make their mark.