India favorites as South Asia's premier football tournament kicks off Friday

After two postponements, a shifting of venue and a withdrawal – all prompted by the raging Covid-19 pandemic – the 13th edition of the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) championship kicks off on October 1 in the picturesque Maldivian capital Male, surrounded by the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean

Sirshendu Panth Sep 30, 2021
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South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) championship

After two postponements, a shifting of venue and a withdrawal – all prompted by the raging Covid-19 pandemic – the 13th edition of the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) championship kicks off on October 1 in the picturesque Maldivian capital Male, surrounded by the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean. Seven-time winners India and holders Maldives are likely to be the main contenders for the title, with the final slated for October 16 at the National Football Stadium, the venue for all the matches.  The coming edition would see a depleted field, as Pakistan have been suspended by the FIFA Council for third-party interference, while Bhutan opted out because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Considered South Asia’s premier football tournament, that began in 1993 as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Gold Cup in the heady days of SAARC bonhomie. the tourney was also for some time called the SAFF Gold Cup, before getting its present name.

Since its inception with the goal of improving the standards of the game in the South Asian region, where none of the member countries feature among the top hundred in the world soccer governing body FIFA rankings despite the immense popularity of the sport, the biennial men’s competition has seen five winners. India lead with seven titles under their belt. Maldives have won twice, while Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan triumphed once each.

However, Afghanistan, which joined SAFF in 2005, left in 2015 to become a founding member of Central Asian Football Federation (CAFF) as it wanted to improve its football standards by competing with better ranked football teams in Central Asia. 

Reduced to a five-horse race, the tournament is being played in a round-robin format, with the top two sides advancing to the final. The hosts play the tournament opener against Nepal, before Sri Lanka take on Bangladesh under the floodlights  on October 1. India begin their campaign opposite Bangladesh on October 4.

As a precaution against Covid, all the participants as also officials had undergone RTPCR tests before coming to the Maldives, and as per the tournament guidelines went through another round of RTPCR screening upon arrival at the hotel. But the good news is the disease has seemingly ebbed in the island nation, which has reported only three deaths from the virus in September, with 95 new cases reported on September 28.

The low case count in the Maldives has come as a welcome relief for the organizers and those connected with the game in the region, as the pandemic has played havoc with the tournament.

Apart from Bhutan backing out after its government refused to permit the team to travel abroad as a precautionary measure, the raging infection pushed back the tournament from 2020 to September 2021. It was further rescheduled to October, after Bangladesh withdrew from hosting it, given the pandemic situation and lack of sponsors,

With the focus now back on the turf, favorites India seem determined to wrest the crown from Maldives after having lost  1-2 in the final of the previous edition of the tournament in Bangladesh’s Bangabandhu Stadium three years back.

“We’re excited and we expect to do well and go all the way through winning the tournament. We are very confident that each one of the players will give their best,” National football head coach Igor Stimac told the-aiff.com.

Captain Sunil Chhetri, both the most-capped player and all-time top scorer for India, gave kudos to the Maldivian organizers.

“It’s truly an extraordinary effort that has been put in. Given the current situation it’s extremely difficult to organise matches, leave aside an entire tournament,’ said the 37-year-old Chhetri,

Hosts Maldives, under coach Ali Suzain, have played two friendlies in Qatar in the run-up to the tournament, winning one and drawing the other.

Bangladesh travelled to Bishkek to play a three-nation series including hosts Kyrgyzstan and Palestine.

“Our desire is to be able to take the initiative and command matches, rather than adopting a defensive approach and relying on the counter,” Bangladesh's Spanish coach Oscar Bruzon, while conceding India were strong favorites. Bangladesh’s only success in the tournament had come 18 years back in 2003.

Nepal have never progressed beyond the semi-final in the tournament. They are hoping to break the jinx under Kuwaiti coach Abdullah Almutairi. Ahead of the tournament, they hosted India for two friendlies. The first one was drawn, but India won the second game.

A weak Sri Lanka, positioned 205 among 210 nations in FIFA rankings, attended a 16-day training camp in Doha, Qatar to tune up for the SAFF championship.

The team had won the tournament way back in 1995, but a repeat of the title triumph could be a tall ask for a side which has been on a losing streak for over two years. Their last win came in 2019, when they won 3-0 against Macau in the Asian Cup Qualifiers.  

Fixtures
Venue: National Football Stadium, Male (all matches)
October 1:  Nepal vs Maldives; Sri Lanka vs Bangladesh
October 4:  Bangladesh vs India; Sri Lanka vs Nepal
October 7:  India vs Sri Lanka;  Maldives vs Bangladesh
October 10: Maldives vs Sri Lanka; Nepal vs India
October 13: Bangladesh vs Nepal; India vs Maldives
October 16: Final between the two top teams after the round-robin stage

(SAM)