Indian women's football team devastated by setback

For a bunch of Indian women football players hailing from humble backgrounds, life over the last one year has revolved around playing in the Asian Cup and then taking a shot at the elusive World Cup. But that dream lay shattered last Sunday after Covid-19 knocked them out of the tournament.

India were unable to field a team against Chinese Taipei at the DY Patil stadium in Navi Mumbai due to a sudden rise in the number of Covid-19 positive cases in the 23-member squad and were forced to withdraw from the Asian Cup at home, reported the Times of India.

From captain Ashalata Devi to the youngest player in the squad Hemam Shilky Devi, the Asian Cup was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and all of them were looking forward to qualify for at least the quarter-final, which would have taken them to the 2023 World Cup.

However, they were left "heartbroken" by the Covid-19 infections.

"Absolutely devastated," said goalkeeper Aditi Chauhan. "We are extremely sad and disappointed.

"But it is not the end of the world and the hope that we will get chances to achieve this in future if we keep on doing well is giving us solace."

Most of the players overcame tremendous odds to reach the Asian Cup level - including opposition from parents and community, reported the Press Trust of India.

India drew goalless with Iran in their opening match, but a win over Chinese Taipei on Sunday would have booked them a quarter-final berth.

The Indian women had beaten Chinese Taipei 1-0 in an international friendly in October last year.

They were one of the well-prepared teams in the tournament, having played international matches in Turkey, Uzbekistan, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Brazil since early last year.

All India Football Federation (AIFF) President Praful Patel said that no bio-bubble is foolproof against Covid-19.

However, some football experts felt the Asian Cup could have been postponed by a couple of months till the Omicron wave subsided in India.

"These players are not high-profile. They are not the type who do not follow instructions. They followed the protocols to the T," said an AIFF official.

"But somehow Covid-19 could breach the bio-bubble.

"It is sheer bad luck and unfortunate."

The tournament is being held under strict health and safety protocols in view of the surge in Covid-19 cases in India, especially in Maharashtra.

All the teams are put up in separate hotels and tested regularly.

Two members of the Indian team tested positive on Jan 19. The squad underwent another round of tests last Friday and 12 players returned positive on Sunday.

Indo-Asian News Service

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