Kuala Lumpur: It’s just the first step on the road to glory on both the Asian and world stages, but there will be no shortage of drama, or quality, when 28 teams vie for the eight remaining places in AFC Women’s Asian Cup India 2022.
Drawn into eight groups at AFC House on Thursday, the 28 hopefuls will need to win their respective sections to join Japan, Australia, China PR and hosts India in the Finals, setting up several mouth-watering clashes.
Join the-AFC.com as we pick apart the matches ahead and whet the appetite for a super September of high stakes action.
The heavyweights’ path: Three top contenders
Drawn in Group C, alongside Singapore, Iraq and Indonesia (hosts)
The highest-ranked side not to have already qualified for India 2022, DPR Korea are an Asian women’s football powerhouse and a team ranked 11th in the world, but one that hasn’t appeared at the Finals since way back in 2010.
Three-time Asian champions – and a team that beat World Cup-quality opponents as recently as 2019 – DPR Korea will be eager to reclaim their position as one of the continent’s top sides, with the relatively inexperienced Singapore, Iraq and Indonesia for company in Group C.
Drawn in Group E, alongside Uzbekistan (hosts) and Mongolia
Having recently suffered a painful qualifying defeat on the final step of the road to the Tokyo Olympics, Korea Republic would surely have been high among the teams no one will have wanted to draw at this stage.
Star names like Ji So-yun, Cho So-hyun and Lee Geum-min will likely be among the players who swap Europe for Tashkent in the Central Asian autumn, with ambitious hosts Uzbekistan looming as the biggest threat to their place as the Finals.
Drawn in Group B, alongside Tajikistan (hosts), Maldives and Afghanistan
The highest ranked Asian nation to have never appeared at the FIFA Women’s World Cup, Vietnam’s shot at history will begin in Tajikistan, where every other team is ranked at least 100 places below them.
Just one game away from reaching the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, and with only a playoff defeat to Australia preventing them from reaching this year’s Olympics, the Golden Star Warriors have been knocking on the door of the world stage for the best part of a decade. Will India 2022 provide the stage for their crowning achievement?
Since you’ve been gone: Three long-term absentees who could shine
Drawn in Group A (hosts), alongside Bahrain, Turkmenistan and Laos
Last Finals appearance: 2008
Among the early pioneers of top-level women’s football in Asia, Chinese Taipei won three Women’s Asian Cup titles in the late 70s and early 80s, but three successive failures to qualify have kept them away from the Finals for over a decade.
Playing at home, ranked 45 places ahead of likely challengers Bahrain and three years on from a top four finish at the Asian Games, the East Asian side will be hot favourites to end a 14-year absence from the continent’s biggest event.
Drawn in Group F (hosts), alongside Philippines and Hong Kong
Last Finals appearance: 1999
Beyond failing to qualify, Nepal haven’t even entered the qualification stage since their last appearance in the tournament proper back in 1999, but there is a growing belief that the team led by richly experienced coach Gary Phillips has the potential to make it all the way to the Finals.
Ranked 21st in Asia – eight places behind group favourites the Philippines – and playing at home, Nepal will be confident of competing in every match, even if star striker Sabitra Bhandari faces a race against the clock to recover from injury.
Islamic Republic of Iran
Drawn in Group G, alongside Jordan and Bangladesh (hosts)
Last Finals appearance: Never qualified
The Iranian team of 2017 wowed fans with flashes of brilliance in their bid to reach the last AFC Women’s Asian Cup, but ultimately fell short against their fitter, faster and more experienced opponents Vietnam and Myanmar.
Four years on, and they’ll return to the Asian stage buoyed by some encouraging Olympic qualifying results and a world no. 72 ranking which puts them just nine places behind group favourites Jordan.
It won’t be easy, but it may just be Iran’s best ever chance to reach the Finals.
Must-see matches: Five crucial games on the road to India
Group E: Korea Republic v Uzbekistan
On paper, Korea Republic should cruise to their 13th successive AFC Women’s Asian Cup, but Uzbekistan’s rapid improvement – including a recent 1-0 loss to the Nigerian team which beat the Koreans at the last Women’s World Cup – coupled with the Central Asian side’s home ground advantage, sets the stage for a potential classic.
Group F: Philippines v Hong Kong
The 13th and 15th-ranked teams in Asia, closing out a group which also includes the ambitious Nepalese side. Anything could happen in Group F – this match will finally settle it all, one way or another.
Group D: Myanmar v Lebanon
Arguably the breakthrough team of the 2019 WAFF Women’s Championship, and with a number of exciting young players in their ranks, Lebanon will aim to shock the continent by reaching the Finals for the first time. Their opening clash, against 46th-ranked Myanmar, will provide the ultimate early litmus test.
Group G: Jordan v IR Iran
Having appeared in the last two AFC Women’s Asian Cups, Jordan will be strong favourites to make it a hat-trick, but they’ll need to get the better of a motivated and improving Iranian team, who will arrive at these Qualifiers with more football under their belts than four years ago.
Group A: Chinese Taipei v Bahrain
A former champion from the East will meet a hopeful from the West on the final Matchday in Group A, and there is no reason to write Bahrain off. They finished an impressive second in the 2019 WAFF Women’s Championship and will be eager to become only the second West Asian team in history to reach the Finals.