Lesser lights eye share of the spotlight
© AFC

Asia’s lesser-known women’s football nations will be presented with a rare opportunity at this week’s AFC Women’s Asian Cup, with qualification for the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015™ the rich reward on offer.

The eight-nation tournament has variously been dominated by a quintet comprised of Australia, China PR, Japan, Korea DPR and Korea Republic over recent decades. It is 31 years since a nation outside the group – Thailand - were crowned continental queens, while Chinese Taipei are the only other Asian nation to feature at the Women’s World Cup, which was at the inaugural event in 1991.

This year, however, offers a different scenario. With Canada 2015 extended to 24 participating nations, along with Korea DPR not featuring after being found guilty of violating FIFA’s Anti-Doping Regulations at Germany 2011, a nation outside the traditional elite has the opportunity to win one of five berths on offer.

Quartet chase dream
Pursuing a maiden Women’s World Cup berth in Vietnam over the course of the 12-day event which commences on Wednesday are Jordan, Myanmar, Thailand and the host nation. Thailand, who have consistently featured at the tournament over recent years and who only failed to qualify for the 2014 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup by the narrowest of margins, arguably have the strongest claim of the quartet. Thailand, despite being pushed all the way by Philippines in pre-qualifying, received a boost in December by seeing off two of their competitors – Myanmar and Vietnam – to win gold in the South-East Asian Games.

As reigning world champions and 2012 Olympic Games silver medallists, Japan’s influence in Asia is clear, but the east Asian nation will also bring their renowned technical expertise to the table in a broader sense. A pair of Japanese will be aiming to help their adopted nations realise their respective Women’s World Cup ambitions, with Myanmar coached by Kumada Yoshinori and Jordan by Masahiko Okiyama.

Yoshinori says “teamwork” will be crucial if Myanmar are to “create football history”. Meanwhile recently crowned west Asian champs Jordan have similar aims of reaching a new milestone for women’s football in the west half of the continent. As hosts of the next FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup Jordan are on a clear upward trajectory, but Okiyama says the opening game against the home side will be pivotal to their chances. “The first match against Vietnam is crucial for us,” he said. “We have to beat Vietnam to stay alive ahead of the bigger matches against Japan and Australia.”

Big four aim high
Japan, somewhat remarkably given their recent global achievements, have yet to win an Asian title in 13 attempts, finishing second on four occasions. This year will perhaps mark a final opportunity for veteran midfielder Homare Sawa - the iconic figure of Japan’s breakthrough generation – to add a missing piece to her bulging silverware collection.

Standing in their way are Korea Republic, who have enjoyed steady growth in a few short years, and China PR. The Chinese were once the undisputed queens of the continent but recent times have provided an unexpected barren spell for the globe’s biggest nation. Coach Hao Wei has injury concerns with Wang Shuang, Wang Lisi and Ma Jun all injured, while there remains doubt about the fitness of recalled star player, former Asian Women’s Player of the Year Ma Xiaoxu.

Australia enter as defending champions, but the Matildas have endured a disrupted preparation following the sudden exit of coach Hesterine de Reus. However, interim boss Alen Stajcic is the W-League’s most successful coach and his line-up includes 11 survivors from the 2010 success, as well as USA-based foursome Lisa De Vanna, Caitlin Foord, Samantha Kerr and Lydia Williams.

“I have tried to implement some of my own philosophy in terms of the positive attacking and possession-based philosophy that I have carried through my whole coaching career,” Stajcic told FIFA.com. “We have tried to be more positive and pro-active both with and without the ball, and generally back ourselves.”