SAFF Cup to kick off on Wednesday

Though chief coach Stephen Constantine had scaled down his expectations and said the tournament was a platform to try young players for the future, SAFF Cup will be a test of character for his players. It remains to be seen if the Indian players can carry their ISL form into the championship.

The captains of the competing teams in the SAFF Suzuki Cup.   -  The Hindu

Two years ago, on September 11, 2013, a teeming mass of people from Afghanistan were perhaps enjoying the happiest day of their life in Kathmandu. Their team had minutes ago beaten the formidable Indian side to win the first major football title. It sparked off frenzied celebrations in Afghanistan and the players returned to a hero’s welcome. The SAFF Cup triumph in 2013 changed the world's perception of Afghanistan.

Two years hence, Afghanistan is still a strife-torn country but its football team have undergone a sea change with only two players remaining from the winning squad of 2013. The last one year saw the exit of three coaches and Peter Segret took over as the fourth coach of Afghanistan two months ago. However, the young team under Faysal Shyesteh, on their final appearance in the SAFF Championship, are determined to leave a mark in the tournament.

“We are here to win the tournament. Football means a lot to people of Afghanistan. We want to win this for our people,” said Faysal on the eve of the SAFF Suzuki Cup football championship, which kicks off at the Greenfield Stadium in Karyivattom on Wednesday.

In many ways, the SAFF Cup represents varying ambitions of the seven competing teams. For hosts India, SAFF Suzuki Cup will be barometer with which their fans will judge how much the country has gained from the Indian Super League. Though chief coach Stephen Constantine had scaled down his expectations and said the tournament was a platform to try young players for the future, the SAFF Cup will be a test of character for his players. It remains to be seen if the Indian players can carry their ISL form into the championship.

Indian captain Sunil Chhetri admitted that it was an open tournament. “There are no clear favourites. Teams are more or less equal in strength. A lot will matter on the day’s form. Obviously as hosts we would like to win the tournament and the pressure will be on us to perform,” he said.

Chhetri, who joined the team on Monday, said that he was fit and was impressed with some of the youngsters in the squad.

“I was impressed with some of the youngsters in the squad. It is a great opportunity for them to play for the country,” he said.

With the withdrawal of Pakistan, Group ‘A’, comprising India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, is relatively a weak group. India despite their rustiness will be the favourites to top the group and qualify for the semi-finals.

Sri Lanka were the first to arrive in the Sate capital two weeks ago and they nurture the ambition of reaching at least the final. Sampath Pereira, who took over as the coach in September, sees the tournament as the launching pad for his team.

“I have selected a team with an eye on the future. Our target is the SAF Games in February and this tournament will present a good opportunity for us to judge where we stand now,” he said.

Nepal, who have shown tremendous improvement in recent times, are hopeful of catching their relatively stronger opponents off guard in Group ‘A’. Nepal’s German coach Patrick Aussems sounded optimistic of his team’s chances.

Maldives, who have prepared meticulously under Riki Herbert for this championship having spent three weeks in Malaysia, aim to improve their dismal record in the championship since 2008. However, they are drawn in the toughest of the two groups – Group ‘B’, which has Afghanistan, Bhutan and Bangladesh.

“We are in the strongest group. We will try our best to qualify. We are not bothered about our opponents and hope to do well,” said Riki Herbert. The coach’s sentiments were also echoed by captain Ashfaq Ahmed.

Kerala Sports Minister Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan will inaugurate the tournament on Wednesday. Nepal will take on Sri Lanka in the opening match.

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