Football, the most watched and followed sport in the Asian Games, got underway in Hangzhou,China Tuesday.
A total of twenty one teams are in the men’s competition. Initially the draw was made with 23 teams but the withdrawal of Syria and Afghanistan reduced the event to 21.
The championship features under-23 national teams.Asian powerhouses in the likes of South Korea, Japan,Iran,Saudi Arabia and Qatar are expected to dominate the tournament. Definitely we cannot rule out surprises and upsets. Host and two times champions China, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Indonesia are teams to watch. With five titles defending champions South Korea has been the most dominant side.
Once again they are one of the strong contenders. Iran has the second best record finishing on top on three occasions. Undoubtedly they are front runners alongside Japan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar for the ultimate honor. After two successive Asian Games appearances in the 2014 in South Korea and 2018 in Indonesia, National Sports Council(NSC) decided against the men’s national team’s participation in the 19th edition of the Asian Games. I guess the decision was based on the team’s current form and poor performance and results in international tournaments lately.
To be fair, given the team’s ongoing struggles in international competitions like never before and the performance level dipping to a new low,NSC made the right call. Nonetheless, it is a lost opportunity for the team to get the much needed exposure against some of the best teams in the Asian continent. On the other hand, NSC approved participation of the women’s national football team in the Asian Games. Team Nepal will be making their maiden appearance in the continent’s biggest sporting event.
The decision was made with the sole intent to give them invaluable exposure which they fully deserve. Footballers are bound to immensely benefit from the exposure in terms of motivation,morale, confidence level and performance. Sixteen teams are in the fray for the top honor. The presence of defending champions Japan,China,South Korea, Philippines and Vietnam(all played in the recent Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand) is expected to make the competition highly competitive. China and North Korea have been the most successful teams.They have won three times each and Japan twice. Nepal find themselves in a very tough group.They are pitted against Japan,Vietnam and Bangladesh. Unlike the men, senior national women’s teams will compete.Nepal has played against Vietnam in two friendly matches in Kathmandu,losing both early this year.
Against strong title contenders Japan, it will be their first meeting.Their best chance is against Bangladesh to achieve a credible result. Obviously,the odds are stacked against them.However, they should not forget the fact that it is a big opportunity to prove themselves on the big stage. They must let go of fear,consistently maintain a high confidence level, build a positive mindset and believe in themselves, They have to give it their all regardless. At the end of the day what counts most is a fighting performance and making an impression no matter what the outcome is. Undoubtedly,our women footballers have the potential to be among the best in Asia and beyond. The women teams in various age groups are continually making strides in football despite huge challenges.
There is a lack of seriousness and commitment to develop women’s football on the part of All Nepal Football Association(ANFA). As things stand,there still is not enough support and investment to develop the game at every level is badly lacking. Domestic football is in a sorry state of affairs.Leave alone a professional league, even a semi-professional league does not exist.That tells the whole story.
A handful of footballers have made forays into the Indian professional league which is a very encouraging sign . Ace striker Sabitra Bhandari's name stands out. She made history by becoming the first Nepali woman footballer to be signed by an Israeli club recently. She is the trump card and spearheads the team’s offense.It is hoped that she finds her scoring touch. Nepal’s opener is against formidable Vietnam on September 21st.
Team Nepal must rise to the occasion by producing their best performance to give the seasoned opposition a run for their money.
By Sushil Thapa, Fairfax. VA, USA
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