Among other things, sport has been a huge victim of the Covid-19 pandemic with mega events being cancelled or postponed and tournaments/team costs spiralling because of events happening in a biosecure bubble.
As the situation worsens in Mumbai and all over the world because of the Omicron variant, Maharashtra gears up to host its biggest sporting event since the 2017 U-17 Fifa World Cup – the AFC Women’s Asian Cup.
Asia’s marquee women’s national team tournament will be played in three cities of Maharashtra – Mumbai (Mumbai Football Arena), Navi Mumbai (DY Patil Stadium) and Pune (Balewadi Sports Complex) from January 20 to February 6.
Despite Mumbai having an average of 20k cases in the past four days, Maharashtra minister Aaditya Thackeray is confident that the state will put on a fabulous show.
Aaditya, who is also the president of the Mumbai District Football Association (MDFA) told FPJ in a exclusive interview that the state government has been working in tandem with the Local Organising Committee (LOC) of the tournament and the All India Football Federation (AIFF) to see ensure safety of the players and all those involved in the tournament.
“We’ve had multiple meetings with various stakeholders in the lead up to this event. We’re confident that everything will go off well since the tournament will happen in a bubble.
“I think that despite the number of cases and the whole situation, Maharashtra is ready to show the world that we can host an international tournament.,” Aaditya said.
A total of 12 teams will battle for the top prize in the showpiece event. At stake is a huge prize of qualification for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup. The teams that finish in the top-five will make it to the mega event which will be held in Australia and New Zealand.
The AFC Women's Asian Cup. | Photo: Twitter
India are grouped with China, Chinese Taipei and Iran and will take heart from the fact that they recently beat Chinese Taipei 1-0 in a friendly.
The only drawback of the upcoming tournament, according to Aaditya, is the fact that fans are not allowed at any stadium.
“Ahead of the Fifa U-17 men’s World Cup, we had arranged for teams like Brazil, Spain and England to train here in Mumbai. And while they were training, our MDFA teams and coaches had a chance to interact with their players and coaches. It was a wonderful opportunity. Sadly, that won’t be possible now because of Covid, but we’ll try to have some online interactions,” he said, while casually mentioning that out of the three teams that trained at the Mumbai Football Arena, England and Spain actually played the final of the U-17 World Cup which England won 5-2 thanks to a brace by Manchester City star Phil Foden.
While getting the hosting right of such a tournament is quite an honour, Aaditya says it’s a big boost to football in the state as they’ve renovated sports infrastructure.
“Look, we didn’t have to build anything. We just had to upgrade the existing infrastructure. The pitches at all venues have been upgraded. In Pune we put new floodlights with LED panels.
“What I’m most impressed with is the two training grounds that have been built at the CIDCO Centre of Excellence in Navi Mumbai. We have a total of six high-quality training grounds for this tournament. And it’s the training grounds that are going to help football grow in Maharashtra,” he said.
Men’s football in Mumbai has seen a lot of positives in 2021 with Mumbai City FC winning the Indian Super League as well as the shield. In Kenkre FC, Mumbai have got a team in the I-League for the first time since 2017. Aaditya says women’s football in Mumbai will get a tremendous boost because of this tournament.
“You have top teams like Australia, Japan, Korea and China coming to play this tournament in our backyard. Just watching them play will be motivating..
“At MDFA, we have a lot planned for women’s football too. Last month, our Maharashtra women’s team qualified for the quarterfinal of the Women’s Senior Nationals for the first time ever. It’s such a huge achievement and hopefully this tournament gives women’s football a big boost,” he said.