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India out of AFC Women's Asian Cup: Timeline of events and key questions

India are out of AFC Women's Asian Cup after a major COVID-19 outbreak in their camp. AFC

Indian women's football were left with many questions, few answers and zero on the points table after the hosts were forced to withdraw from the 2022 AFC Women's Asian Cup after a major COVID-19 outbreak.

India failed to name 13 players in their squad for Sunday's match against Chinese Taipei and subsequently the game was cancelled. On Monday, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) announced that as per the rules, India would have to withdraw and their matches will be considered null and void.

Here's a look at the timeline of how India's unfortunate exit played out and the various questions it raises:

Cryptic messages, no clarity: What happened on Sunday?

The rumors about the game being cancelled began a couple of hours before kickoff on Sunday. There was no clarity from official channels but murmurs of a COVID outbreak severe enough to halt proceedings were doing the rounds. There were no start lists shared and the absence of the Indian team in pre-match activities while Chinese Taipei did their drills on field only added to the suspicions.

The first official confirmation of any problem came with the announcement of the match being cancelled at 7:38 PM, eight minutes after the scheduled kickoff.

Why was the official announcement delayed?

The official reason for the delay in confirmation is that as per rules, the AFC can only announce a cancellation after kickoff. Soon after the announcement, the AIFF put out a statement by its president who said the situation was "sheer bad luck" and "no bubble is foolproof around the world" during a pandemic.

However, the confusion didn't end here. There was no clarity on the fate of the Indian team in the statements either from AFC or AIFF.

The competition regulation said in a clause that in case a team was unable to field the requisite players, they will be withdrawn from competition. But there was another clause that stated that this can be appealed to a committee under "exceptional circumstances." This offered some hope for the home team.

"If a Participating Team/Participating Club has less than thirteen (13) Participating Players (including one [1] goalkeeper) available for a Match for any reason (whether or not relating to COVID-19), the relevant Participating Team/Participating Club shall not be able to participate in the Match. Such Participating Team/Participating Club shall be held responsible for the Match not taking place and shall be considered to have withdrawn from the relevant Competition. The relevant Participating Team/Participating Club and its affiliated Member Association shall be subject to the provisions of the relevant competition regulations regarding the consequences of withdrawal, as applicable.

"In exceptional circumstances and provided that any rescheduling will not affect the Match Schedule determined by the AFC General Secretariat, the AFC Competitions Committee (or any sub-committee carrying out duties on its behalf) may grant an exception to the foregoing and allow the relevant Match to be rescheduled."

The official confirmation came only on Monday, with AFC stating that Article 4.1 was indeed applied and there was no mention of a committee or any exceptional circumstances.

What are the bio-bubble protocols and what was the breach?

The matches are being played inside a bio-bubble with no crowds and no face-to-face interaction with the media. It is learnt that the players, match officials and AFC organisers are in a medical bio-bubble operated by the AFC. The Indian team was in one of the designated hotels in Mumbai.

However, as is seen with other tournaments this year, such as the U19 men's cricket World Cup and the Indian Super League, the new variant of the coronavirus has breached bio-bubbles much faster than before.

Are the other teams affected? What about India's first opponents, Iran?

There were cases in other teams as well, with Japan's star forward Mana Iwabuchi, who travelled separately for the event, being one of them. A look at start lists from the matches so far shows that in almost every match, there have been instances of a team not fielding all 23 players with some being marked not eligible, via injury or otherwise was not specified.

Iran had no players marked not eligible in the team sheet in the match against China earlier on Sunday. With Group A games being on the same day, it can be deduced that India and Iran would have been tested in similar timelines with different results.

How does India's exit affect the tournament?

First and foremost, this completely changes the equation for quarterfinals and the FIFA World Cup qualification. And the latter was not a simple equation to begin with. In a nutshell, the top two teams from each group and two best third-place teams go through. The quarters are important because the teams (except hosts Australia) qualify for the World Cup while the next best go into continental playoffs.

With India's exit, there are only three teams in Group A and to ensure uniformity for all third-placed teams in all groups, the AFC has said the results of the matches in Group B and C between the first, second and third-placed teams against the fourth-placed teams will not be counted. This could impact the ratios when it comes to goal difference. It also means Iran's first point against India has been chalked off.

How does India's exit affect women's football in the country?

The team is understandably heartbroken, as the tweets from Aditi Chauhan and Damilma Chhibber suggest.

Hosting the AFC Asian Women's Cup was the focus of the Indian women's football program for the last year or so. The Indian Women's League last took place in 2020, while the core national squad stayed in the camp and went on exposure tours to six countries in 2021. Now that this tournament is done, it's unclear what is next for the team.