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Road to 2023: Asia’s emerging cast chases World Cup dream

Kuala Lumpur: The June 25 confirmation of Australia and New Zealand as 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup hosts was a cause for celebration not only for the two host nations, but for ambitious women’s national teams throughout Asia.

Australia’s new status as an automatic qualifier, coupled with the 2023 tournament’s expansion from 24 to 32 teams, means the race to reach the pinnacle of the women’s game has never been more open.

As attention shifts towards what promises to be a golden month of football in 2023, Asia’s emerging nations are embracing their best ever chance to reach the World Cup Finals, setting the stage for a key period in the development of the women’s game in Asia.

Joining to discuss the road ahead are Philippines goalkeeper Inna Palacios, Vietnamese captain Huynh Nhu, and Bala Devi, who will be among India’s star players when they host the AFC Women’s Asian Cup in 2022.

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Philippines: Bigger than football

FIFA Ranking: 67
AFC Ranking: 13
2018 AFC Women’s Asian Cup: 6th

“Just thinking about it really gives me so much excitement - goose bumps, and all that – because it’s my dream. I think it’s every athlete’s dream to reach the highest level of their sport. For football it’s the World Cup, even more so than the Olympics.”

It may still be three years until Auckland’s Eden Park hosts the opening match of the tournament, but World Cup fever has already arrived for Philippines goalkeeper Inna Palacios, who was delighted to learn that Australia and New Zealand will welcome the world’s top teams in 2023.

“I was very excited, for many reasons actually,” says the 26-year-old. “For one, it’s near us. Two; we just missed it by one position last time, and three; I have relatives in Australia.

“I love spending time with them and it’s achievable that we’ll be there. Having them watch me on the world’s biggest stage would mean the world to me.

“I don’t think there is any other chance. I think the best chance is now.”

When the top five teams at the 2018 AFC Women’s Asian Cup qualified for the following year’s Women’s World Cup, it was the Philippines who finished sixth, losing 3-1 to Thailand, then 5-0 to Korea Republic, in matches where wins would have guaranteed their place in France.

Missing out on a maiden World Cup by a single match may have been a difficult pill to swallow, but, in truth, the team had made remarkable progress to come as close as they did.

Jordan 1-2 Philippines (AFC Women’s Asian Cup 2018: Group Stage)

After failing to reach any of the previous four AFC Women’s Asian Cups, and only managing wins against regional rivals Malaysia and Singapore in the two years prior to their qualifying run, the Philippines not only reached the Finals in Jordan, but stunned the host nation with an opening night 2-1 win in front of 10,000 fans in Amman.

A watershed moment though it was, those three points were won by a team that bore little resemblance to the side that had steered the Philippines through qualifying, with several US-based players with Filipino heritage drafted in to bolster the squad.

Two years on, and with a handful of those players still regular contributors to the national team, Palacios believes combining the significant talents of the Filipino diaspora with players from the local women’s football community is key to maximising their chances of reaching the world stage.

“To be able to represent a country, we all need to know who we’re representing first. We have to have that connection to the culture we represent,” explains Palacios, who has regained her mantle as the team’s starting shot-stopper after being overlooked at Jordan 2018, despite playing every minute of the Qualifiers.

“I agree that there are so many good foreign-based players, but I also know that there are a lot of good local players. I think it’s really about creating an environment where we can all push each other towards a common goal, which is to uplift women’s football in the Philippines and advance on the international stage. I think if you have that good mix of players working together, it’s easier to find balance, because they know their purpose, and we’re all working together.

“There’s always competition between players, but if you know your purpose, if you know who you’re representing, it becomes much bigger than just playing.”

‘Much bigger than playing’ is a common theme when talking to Palacios, who sees reaching a World Cup not only as a chance to rub shoulders with the best players in the game, but to inspire a new generation of young athletes in her country.

Qualifying may have been a distant dream in 2018, but it’s now an achievable goal, and one which Palacios believes would leave a transformative legacy in a country of more than 100 million.

“I would say ‘when’ (not if), because I want to qualify,” she laughs. “So, when the Philippines qualify, it won’t just uplift women’s football here, but football as a whole. People will start taking it seriously, because it shows that even with the limited resources we have, we can achieve something great.

“I hope that it will inspire more kids to take on the grassroots programmes, because it will help to bridge that gap – there’s a big gap from the youth to the senior level. It’s about really giving kids an aspiration that they can use the sport to change their lives. Playing can give you so many things: getting a college degree, going to new places, meeting new people, learning about life. It’s incredible.

“At the end of the day, I just want them all to be inspired by what we’re trying to do.”

Vietnam: The heir to the throne

FIFA Ranking: 35
AFC Ranking: 6
2018 AFC Women’s Asian Cup: 8th

“Recently we have been developing well, and - especially in our latest tournaments -we have had many good achievements.”

Considering her side went unbeaten through all of 2019 – winning the AFF Women’s Championship title as well as a SEA Games gold medal – Vietnamese captain Huynh Nhu’s assessment of her side’s progress may be something of an understatement.

They are now the highest-ranked Asian nation to have never played at a FIFA Women’s World Cup as well as Southeast Asia’s premier women’s national team, often getting the better of a Thailand side which has appeared at the past two global Finals.

Tokyo 2020 - Play-off second leg: Vietnam 1-2 Australia

The gulf between Vietnam and Asia’s traditional powerhouses also appears, slowly but surely, to be closing.

Vietnam had never scored against Australia prior to their Tokyo 2020 Olympic qualifying playoff in March, and while a 5-0 first leg to defeat in Newcastle was the type of result which had been the norm in previous clashes, Mai Duc Chung’s side did themselves proud in a 2-1 second leg defeat on home soil, with Nhu memorably scoring with a 30-yard lob.

“We know the gap between Vietnam and Australia is still large, therefore, when playing with Australia in the home game, we set a target to score a goal (against them). That's something we had never done before,” Nhu recalls.

“Besides that, the expectations of our fans had a huge effect on us. The whole team had to play with 100 percent effort to score a goal for the Vietnamese fans.

“Playing with stronger opponents is a good way for Vietnam's team to improve more and more, so I also hope that the team will have more opportunities to go abroad and gain more experience from other countries in the region.

“I also hope that the youth team will have more chances to practice and play because they are the important factor to the future of Vietnamese football, to bring us closer and closer to the world-class level.”

After being drawn alongside Australia, Japan and Korea Republic in a 2018 AFC Women’s Asian Cup group Nhu describes as “almost possible”, Vietnam are now ranked sixth in the continent, and finished among the final four of Asia’s Tokyo Olympic qualifying tournament.

A similar result at the 2022 Asian Finals will make Nhu’s charges the first in the nation’s history to appear on the game’s biggest stage.

“This is a big chance for Vietnam women’s team,” declares the 28-year-old striker. “With the number of participating teams increasing and Australia as the host, the opportunity for our team is now possible.

“It is the best chance for Vietnamese football to make the World Cup dream come true. I believe that the leaders will have suitable plans from now to create more training programmes and tournaments for the team to play and gain experience, all looking ahead to the Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.”

India: Asia’s emerging women’s football epicentre

FIFA Ranking: 55
AFC Ranking: 11
2018 AFC Women’s Asian Cup: Did not qualify

While Australia and New Zealand are preparing to stage a women’s football festival of their own in 2023, the women’s game is also high on the agenda on India, which will host not one, but two major tournaments in the next two years.

The world’s second most populous nation will organise the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in 2021, before welcoming the continent’s top 12 senior teams for the AFC Women’s Asian Cup the following year.

Looming as a key figure in the latter tournament is Bala Devi, the prolific goal scorer who became her India’s first female professional footballer when she signed with Scottish powerhouse Rangers in January.

“I am very happy to be here. The experience is fantastic,” said the 29-year-old.

“It is even bigger for us since Rangers’ men’s and women’s team are integrated in the same training centre, and we get similar benefits and sports science support as the men’s team. That’s not quite common for women teams around the world."

“In terms of skill it is fine, but in terms of speed and movement off the ball and the physical play, it is at a completely different level. Unfortunately, everything has stopped since March, but we hope when its back we will be back to our best in training and matches.

“I have been well looked after by the club and my teammates. There are also lots of Indian families here. ‘Mr Singh’s’ is a very famous restaurant in Glasgow just a few minutes from my house.”

Devi’s move has taken her halfway around the world and made her a flagbearer for an Indian women’s game on the verge of unprecedented attention at home.

The U-17 national team is being coached by Thomas Dennerby, who took Nigeria to the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France, and the senior side has shown steady improvement ahead of what promises to be their biggest ever tournament in 2022.

Devi is confident the two major events will boost the women’s game’s profile in Indian society, but admits her team’s place in the continental pecking order is a mystery that can only be solved on the pitch.

“(The U-17 Women’s World Cup) will draw a lot of eyeballs towards women’s football,” she says. “The tournament will be widely televised and with India hosting it, many will come to the stadiums, for sure. That would be a huge fillip. and that would be followed by India hosting the 2022 Women’s Asian Cup.

“To be honest, we don't know what level all the teams are at. We are improving but only when we play countries in the top 25 of the rankings will we know if there is any chance of us matching them. The Women’s Asian Cup will be a big test for us, and we hope we can prepare for that together.

“We are slowly gathering a lot of interest and hopefully we will now consistently hit the top 10 rankings of Asia, which I think is possible. The situation is fast changing – the Indian Women’s League is having its impact, the U-17 World Cup will have its impact, and the 2022 Asian Cup will impact everyone for sure.”

India has significant ground to make up to be among the 32 teams in Australia and New Zealand, but the right results at the right time could extend the country’s two-year women’s football party into something with a permanent impact.

“(Qualifying for 2023) would be a huge boost,” says Devi. “For the men’s or the women’s team to qualify for the senior World Cup is the ultimate dream for everyone involved in football and all the fans of football in the country.

“It would be huge for the league, for the future generations and for many more girls to take up football.”

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