Women take first steps to Beijing

The early qualifying stages of the 2008 Women's Olympic Football Tournament are gearing up as a multitude of teams look to the horizon, and a seat among the world's best in Beijing in two-years' time.

Of the two Asian participants at the last instalment of the Olympic Games, in Athens in 2004, only one reached past the group stages and into the knockout rounds. Even then, the quarter-finals were as far as Japan's trek would take them, felled 2-1 by eventual champions USA in Thessaloniki.

This time around, closer to home in the Chinese capital of Beijing, Asia's participants will be hoping for far better. Chief among those hoping to make a mark will be one-time powerhouse China PR. As hosts of the event in 2008, the Steel Roses will be keen to improve upon their anaemic one-point haul from three matches in Greece - which including an 8-0 humiliation at the hands of Germany.

As hosts, the Chinese will not have to worry about the qualifying process for the 2008 games, but their neighbours throughout Asia are gearing up for a big fight set to start soon.

Three groups of four are set to tangle in a home/away aggregate format to determine which six teams will join Japan and Korea DPR in the final round of qualifying.

The first group (A) will pit 2003 FIFA Women's World Cup participants Korea Republic against Hong Kong, India and Jordan - who have already begun training in a residency camp in preparation for the competition.

Group B will see hosts Thailand - who also hosted the FIFA U-20 Women's World Championship in 2004 - up against Maldives, Singapore and Vietnam, while Group C will consist of former Oceania powers and Athens 2004 quarter-finalists Australia, hosts Chinese Taipei, Myanmar and Uzbekistan.

Groups B and C will adopt a standard round-robin format while Group A will employ a system of two home/away matches with the winners squaring off for top spot and the runner-up finishing second.

The eight-team final qualifying field will square off from April to August 2007 in a home-away league format. The winners of the two groups of four will book passage as the two Asian reps alongside China PR at Beijing 2008.

Africa and the rest
CAF - Africa's football confederation - could possibly send two teams for the first time in their history to a Women's Olympic Football tournament, granted 1.5 slots in the final field. Nigeria and Ghana (the two African representatives at next year's FIFA Women's World Cup) will be considered prohibitive favourites, with South Africa also fancying their chances.

With the preliminary rounds done and dusted, the remaining 16 African hopefuls move on to the first qualifying round proper, which will run from February to March 2007, at which point a draw will be held to determine the matches for the third and final round.

The four winners of the second round will battle it out in a round-robin format, with the winner qualifying automatically for Beijing. The runner-up then moves on to a play-off with South America's second-place finisher.

Oceania, minus Australia for the first time since the Matildas' move to the Asian Football Confederation, will hold a qualifying tournament in March 2008, while Europe (UEFA) will use next year's FIFA Women's World Cup in China as a qualifying competition. The top three European finishers at China 2007 will go on to qualify for the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008.

The two teams from North, Central America and the Caribbean (CONCACAF) have yet to be determined and details of their pending qualifying competition will be released shortly. But if recent tournaments are anything to go by, the USA, Canada and Mexico will be heavily fancied to make the grade.

Stay tuned to FIFA.com for all your Beijing 2008 news as it breaks…