With qualifiers yet to be completed, a cloud of doubt hangs over U17 Women's World Cup
The event had already been postponed because of Covid-19...
The next U17 Women's World Cup, being hosted for the first time by India, has been one of those sporting events that has bore the brunt of the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic.
Covid-19 has played spoilsport in India's grand plans to host their second ever FIFA tournament, forcing its postponement once already. And the fear is that the pandemic could still deal a fatal blow to the event.
India was appointed as the host by the FIFA Council meeting at Miami on March 15, 2019, and it was originally slated to be held in November 2020.
But FIFA had no choice but to postpone it after the sport came to a halt around March 2020 worldwide. During a FIFA Council meeting, it was decided that the tournament would be shifted to February and March 2021.
However, with just about four months remaining for the tournament, a lot of uncertainties still remain unresolved including the 16 countries who would participate in the tournament.
FIFA have convened its council once again on Thursday where they are set to discuss the upcoming events including the U17 Women's World Cup.
The return of football in India is not an issue since the AIFF (All India Football Federation) is set to conduct the I-League Second Division at Kolkata in October, followed by the I-League which is expected to start, also at Kolkata, in November. The Indian Super League, the top-tier league in India, is also slated to kick-off later this year in Goa.
The venues and training grounds are also not a problem since work has been progressing on schedule on all five host stadiums and practice pitches around them.
However, there is still a level of uncertainty over the qualifiers for the 2021 U17 Women's World Cup. The tournament has not been held in most of the confederations. And with the pandemic still continuing worldwide, it remains to be seen if it will be conducted in time for the tournament.
UEFA (Europe) decided to cancel their qualifiers outright last month as the pandemic raged on. Instead, they decided to nominate Spain, England and Germany based on their rankings for the World Cup in India.
Oceania (OFC) followed suit, cancelling their tournament and selecting New Zealand to represent them at the tournament.
Only AFC (Asia) have conducted the qualifiers as scheduled. Japan and DPR Korea have booked their places in the final round who had finished champions and runners-up respectively in the 2019 AFC U16 Women's Championship.
The interesting part here is that the qualifiers have still not been held by CAF (Africa), CONCACAF (North and Central America) and CONMEBOL (South America) for the World Cup.
Given the intricacies in conducting a tournament in the current scenario including the establishment of bio-safety bubbles and the necessary quarantining period that comes with it, it is not feasible to conduct a quick qualifying tournament. Then there is the matter of training and preparation the qualifying team has to undergo before they take part in the World Cup.
With just four months remaining, the timeline to conduct the qualifiers is shrinking and there is no indication so far that CAF, CONCACAF and CONMEBOL will do what UEFA and OFC have done and scrap their qualifiers.
It must be noted that CAF have come up with a schedule to conduct the final round of their U17 Women's Championship. It was initially fixed to be held in May but has now been rescheduled for November. The first leg of the final stage is slated for October 30 to November 1 and the reverse fixture is set to be held three weeks later, with the final match set to finish on November 22.
There are only three two-legged matches in this stage and winners of each tie will qualify for the World Cup.
CONMEBOL, meanwhile, have also rescheduled their qualifying tournament between November 30 and December 19. With 10 teams involved, the tournament is set to be held in Uruguay. It was initially supposed to be held in Venezuela before CONMEBOL changed venue to Uruguay. However, it leaves barely two months for the winners to prepare themselves for the U17 World Cup if everything goes without hassle.
As far as CONCACAF is concerned, the tournament was supposed to be held in Mexico in April and May 2020. However, it was postponed and there has been no clarity yet on when the tournament might be rescheduled or even cancelled. Importantly, the tournament consists of 20 teams and hence is a longer event, with significant international travel involved which makes it tougher to organise in the wake of a pandemic.
Though CAF and CONMEBOL have taken concrete steps to complete their qualifiers, any sort of setback with regards to the safety of the players or the pandemic will leave no room to manoeuvre.
As such, there are a lot of variables at play and it is anyone's guess what the FIFA Council might decide when they meet on Thursday to take stock of the situation. But there is no doubt that there is a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the U17 Women's World Cup.