PRIZE THAT MATTERS: Footballers from seven of the participating countries pose with the trophy on the eve of the SAFF Championship in New Delhi on Thursday.
It is about good and weak teams, tactical and seminal football. It is also about fierce competition, as expounded by the coaches, with some banter thrown in to signify the spirit in which the SAFF Championship will be played at the Nehru Stadium here from Friday.
India is the defending champion and Maldives a strong contender. Pakistan is also fancying its chances. Sri Lanka says it is no pushover. Bangladesh loves its football. Nepal has launched an ambitious project — ‘Do well in SAFF'. Afghanistan is waiting to showcase its potential. Bhutan, the weakest on paper, promises it is not so.
Effectively, we have a gathering of teams all wanting to excel on a stage which most would dismiss as a mediocre football exhibition. It would be a travesty to think so. This is a tournament that brings some ambitious teams on the same plane. India, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Bhutan form Group ‘A' while the others make up Group ‘B'.
“I don't underestimate anybody,” Nepal coach Graham Paul Roberts put things in perspective. He should know, having played for Chelsea and Glasgow Rovers.
“I like to speak after the match…I am no astrologer. Only astrologer speaks before the match. We are here to play good football,” was a matter-of-fact Nicolai, the Bangladesh coach. He reached out to pick the trophy on display, moving it from in front of the Maldives coach. “Now it is nice,” he said poker-faced, running his hands over the trophy, leaving the house in splits.
Maldives has roped in Istvan Urbanyi, a Hungarian first-division player, as the coach. Urbanyi came off the most candid and a master at communication. He assessed the opponents deftly and placed his case strongly.
“We have huge pressure, from fans and media (back home). I have been with the team only five weeks but we are well prepared. The weather here is fine and the grass is good. I can't wish better. We respect all opponents and I know there won't be an easy game,' said Urbanyi, a pleasant hit with the audience.
Pakistan is realistic. Admitted captain Jaffer Khan, “Honestly, there is no pressure. In India it is like at home. Only weak players feel pressure. We have a new coach and he has picked young players but we are not weak.”
Bhutan coach Hiroaki Matsuyama and captain Nawang Dendup just repeated their well-rehearsed lines, “We will give our best. We will give our hundred per cent.”
Sri Lanka has its plans in place. “We have played a few local matches and travelled to Dubai as part of the preparation. It's been a happy journey thus far. We know India is strong but we are well prepared. Weather can be an issue for us but we have to face it,” observed coach D. Chandrasiri.
India, smarting under the 5-0 lashing from Zambia in a friendly the other night, hopes to keep the trophy. Coach Savio Mediera noted, “Ideally it would have been nice to go in with a win but there is a vast difference in the technical abilities between India and Zambia. We have to make the most of it.” With help from strikers Sunil Chetri and Jeje Lalpekhlua, India's quest for football renaissance continues!
Group A -- Afghanistan India Sri Lanka Bhutan
Group B -- Bangladesh
Maldives Pakistan Nepal
vs Pakistan 4:30am - 7:30am EST
Maldives vs Nepal 7:30am - 10:30am EST
India vs Afghanistan 4:30am - 7:30am EST
Sri Lanka vs Bhutan 7:30am - 10:30am EST
Nepal vs Bangladesh
4:30am - 7:30am EST
Pakistan vs Maldives 7:30am - 10:30am EST
Afghanistan vs Sri Lanka 4:30am - 7:30am EST
Bhutan vs India 7:30am - 10:30am EST
Pakistan vs Nepal 4:30am - 7:30am EST
Maldives vs Bangladesh
7:30am - 10:30am EST
India vs Afghanistan 4:30am - 7:30am EST
India vs Sri Lanka 7:30am - 10:30am EST
Winner B vs Runner Up A 4:30am - 7:30am EST
Winnder A vs Runner-Up B 7:30am - 10:30am EST
Championship Final (Winner 13 vs Winner 14) 7:30am - 10:30am
In a deal with World Sport Group and SAFF’s exclusive marketing and media partner, All the matches will be live on YouTube from 2 December to 11 December. The live matches will be accessible globally through SAFF Youtube Channel except in India, where they will be available on a delayed basis the following day.