Why a 32 team FIFA Women's World Cup presents a golden opportunity to India

THE 2023 EDITION of the FIFA Women's World Cup will be expanded to include 32 nations instead of 24, FIFA announced today.

The long awaited decision was made public at the same ceremony where Australia and New Zealand were chosen as the joint hosts for the global championship.

This is the second time a football World Cup has been co-hosted by two nations; the first one being the 2002 edition of the men's tournament that was held in Japan and South Korea. However, for the first time, this edition will see two countries from two confederations share the World Cup; since Australia play in AFC (Asian Football Confederation) while New Zealand are a part of OFC (Oceania Football Confederation). Both countries have qualified for the competition as hosts.

For the Blue Tigresses, too, this brings new opportunity. The AFC Women's Asian Cup 2022, which will be held in India, serves as the de-facto qualifying tournament for the 2023 Women's World Cup. Last time, AFC had 5 slots; so the Asian Cup semi-finalists as well as the 5th place playoff winners were selected to play in the WWC. This time, AFC may get as many as 7 slots; 6 of which will be in play at the continental championship. This means if India can get past the group stage, they will get a golden opportunity to become the first Indian senior football team to play in World Cup; a barrier that both the men and women's team have been trying to break for decades without success.

Presently, the Indian Women's Football Team are ranked 55th in the world. They have had their busiest calendar year in 2019, playing 32 matches (26 official/competition matches and 6 unofficial friendlies); more than any previous year and equal to the number of matches they played from 2014 till 2018. They won the SAFF Women's Championship as well as South Asian Games and put on a strong performance in the Olympic Qualifiers. Their upward mobility in form was followed by the news that AIFF had won the right to host the Women's Asian Cup of 2022; establishing a trajectory of planned improvement that may well put the Blue Tigresses within touching distance of making history.

Indian football fans have been waiting for many years to see their nation qualify for the World Cup. As hosts, the men's U-17 team played the World Cup in 2017, while the women's U-17 team will do the same in 2021. But the entire endeavour has been focused on getting the senior team into the World Cup, by merit. If 2022 brings a realisation of that dream, that too on home soil, it will definitely be the single biggest achievement in the history of Indian football.

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