The drama in Women’s Olympic qualifying in the Asia Football Confederation (AFC) usually takes place on the field. With five teams currently ranked in the top 20 of the FIFA rankings and only two qualifying spots, it is arguably the most difficult region to qualify from.
This year, however, the drama so far has been entirely off the field.
A revised qualifying process for 2020 initially held out the promise of better soccer and safer playing conditions for the teams involved. In 2012 and 2016, the final qualifying round was a survival of the fittest exercise consisting of six teams playing five games in 11 days, with the top two finishers in a single-table format reaching the Olympics.
For 2020, the big guns of Asia entered the tournament in the 3rd round, which was to consist of two groups of four teams playing a week-long tournament in two host locations beginning Feb. 3. The top two teams in each group advance to a two-leg playoff played on March 6 and 11, with the winner of Group A facing the runner-up of Group B and vice versa. The two winners on aggregate over the two-legs book a spot in Tokyo.
If only it were that simple. Group B is down to three teams amid political tension, while the host of Group A was abruptly changed from China to Australia amid the coronavirus outbreak in China. On Friday morning (Australian time), a schedule change was announced to extend the Group A schedule beyond the FIFA window to account for China’s national team being quarantined until after the proposed first match date.
The scene was set for the initial drama during the draw on Oct. 18, when North Korea was handed a spot in Group A, hosted by in Jeju, South Korea.
Relations between the North and the South have steadily deteriorated over the past twelve months, carrying over into the normally diplomatic sporting world. The first indication of problems came three days before the draw, when the South Korean men played a World Cup qualifier against the North in Pyongyang under what has been described as the most bizarre circumstances those involved have ever experienced. No live broadcast, no fans and no foreign media, not to mention bizarre treatment off the field.
North Korea followed on that experience later the same month by withdrawing their women’s team from December’s EAFF E-1 Football Championship hosted by South Korea. Finally came word in late December that the North Koreans were withdrawing from Olympic qualifying as well, rather than sending a team south of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
The AFC elected to not replace the North Koreans, leaving just South Korea, Vietnam and Myanmar to play in Jeju. As a result, there will only be a total of three matches played in the group, one each on Feb. 3, 6 and 9.
The drama in Group B has been of a different nature. Wuhan, China, was to play host to Australia, Thailand, Chinese Taipei and the Chinese women’s national team. Wuhan, of course, has suddenly become well-known globally in the last few weeks as the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.
On Jan. 22, the AFC announced that qualifying would be moved to Nanjing, 334 miles east of Wuhan. Four days later, as the outbreak worsened, China officially withdrew as hosts and Sydney, Australia, was announced as the new host for Group B with match dates and times to be determined.
On Tuesday, the schedule was initially confirmed as the same as the original timeline, with matches on Feb. 3, 6 and 9. However, upon arrival in Australia it was learned that the Chinese team traveled through Wuhan in the past week. As a result, the entire Chinese contingent has been placed in quarantine in Brisbane, where they will remain until Feb. 5. A meeting of several world organizations determined a schedule that will see China start play on the second match day and then play host Australia on Feb. 12, after the international window ends.
To make matters worse for the Chinese side, they were already forced to bring a depleted side. Three players on the team, including midfield star Wang Shuang, are from the Wuhan area and had remained there to be with family for the Lunar New Year holidays. When China made the decision to ban travel out of the city, those players were trapped and unable to join up with their teammates.
These events, particularly the chaos surrounding Group B, overshadow what has the potential to be the most wide-open qualifying competition that AFC perhaps has seen to date.
With Japan having already qualified for the Olympics as host; Australia struggling since the start of 2018; the new direction of South Korea under their first ever foreign head coach, Colin Bell; and China stumbling with only a handful of wins during 2019, there’s never been less certainty over which two teams will qualify. On top of that, the intrigue of a meaningful match between North and South Korea is always something to behold.
Now, however, it would be a major upset if South Korea does not win Group A easily. Vietnam will benefit from the absence of the North Koreans and will be expected to beat Myanmar to finish second in the group.
In Group B, the worst-case scenario is that it turns out during this quarantine period that a member of the Chinese contingent has contracted the coronavirus forcing the team to withdraw from qualifying. If that happens, Australia wins the group and Thailand benefits by finishing in second. From there, Australia and South Korea would be heavily favored to beat Vietnam and Thailand, respectively, to qualify.
In the event China plays as planned, the group will be decided on the new final match day, when China and Australia are scheduled to meet. As hosts, and not having had to go through the ordeal that China is going through, Australia would have to be considered strong favorites.
Either way, the Australia-China match is now effectively a one-game qualifier. Neither team would struggle in a playoff with Vietnam. The last time Australia played Vietnam in the 2018 AFC Women’s Asian Cup, the Matildas won 8-0. The last time China played Vietnam, also in 2018, the result was 4-0.
South Korea against either Australia or China would be an intriguing playoff, however. Bell’s first game in charge of the South Koreans came last month at the EAFF E-1 Cup against China, a 0-0 draw that the Koreans should have won. That match featured a full-strength Chinese side against a Korean side that was missing it’s three England-based players.
Bell’s team went on to beat Chinese Taipei 3-0 and took Japan to the 88th minute before falling 1-0 on a penalty. With Ji So-yun (Chelsea), Lee Geum-min (Manchester City) and Cho So-hyun (West Ham United) at his disposal this time around, a two-leg win over China and their first ever Olympics qualification would be a realistic outcome.
If faced with Australia, things become a little bit more challenging. The lone meeting in 2019 between the two teams came at the Australia Four Nation’s Friendship Cup, where the Matildas won easily, 4-1. However, at the 2018 AFC Asian Cup the result was 0-0 and the Koreans have a history, even with Australia at their best, of keeping the matches between the two tight. With growing confidence after their 2019 tour of the United States and Australia’s struggles, an upset is not out of the question.
For now, however, the focus remains what is going on outside of the field of play, how Group B rescheduling will change dynamics, and the hopes that the Chinese team comes out of quarantine healthy and unscathed.
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