BENGALURU : If there is any football championship India has dominated since its inception, it has to be the SAFF Championships. They have won it seven times. Of the five teams who are featuring in the competition that started on Friday, India are the highest ranked team at 107. Maldives, the hosts, are ranked 158. Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are even lower in the list. With India having taken a strong squad, they are expected to return home with another SAFF title under their belt.
In fact, India had sent their U-23 team to the last edition in 2018, but the same was not done this time with the Asian Cup third round of qualifiers coming up in February next year. This SAFF competition will allow head coach Igor Stimac an opportunity to see where his players stand. With his players expected to be busy with their respective ISL sides post this tournament, the 13th edition assumes greater significance.
“We have a full available squad here for only one reason, this is the last chance before the third round of qualifiers starts for our team to get together... we are going to use this tournament in the best possible way to check out a few more things and give more experience to youngsters and win the tournament,” the gaffer said in a virtual interaction on Saturday. However, when India start their campaign against Bangladesh at the National Football Stadium in Male on Monday, it is going to be a different feel. They only reached Maldives around four days ago, and have had to train on artificial turfs too.
The national team, most often, are involved in a national camp, before they head for international championships, but it was not the case this time. “SAFF & AFC are forced to do competitions outside the FIFA windows. Then, you need to come to an understanding with the clubs to release the players. We had several meetings with FSDL and ISL representatives, how to manage all that. Club coaches also want their players there to work with them and prepare in the best possible way for ISL.
It was not easy, everyone had to give up on something. We came to an understanding that our national team will give up on November camp. They released the players for matches outside the FIFA window.”Skipper Sunil Chhetri believes it is not going to be easy in the competition. “We have realised that every other team, who are in the SAFF region are also improving. Whenever they play against us, it is a different ball game for them.”