Even as India-Pakistan relations nosedive across various sports, the neighbours have not only been drawn together in the same group for the SAFF Suzuki Cup 2015 but are also set to kick off their campaign against each other.
The ninth edition of the biennial regional tournament will be organised in Thiruvananthapuram from December 23 to January 3.
At the draw held here on Wednesday, India and Pakistan were clubbed in Group A along with Nepal and Sri Lanka. Group B included Maldives, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and defending champion and top-ranked Afghanistan.
With only three of the eight team representatives present, the draw was a sedate affair. Given the political situation in the sub-continent, Pakistan’s participation cannot be confirmed until the team actually lands in India.
AIFF general secretary Kushal Das insisted that the organisers were following every prescribed procedure to ensure the team’s participation. “We have had Pakistan here before. Certain permissions have to be taken, but I don’t foresee any problem,” he said.
However, SAFF officials admitted that they did not have a Plan B in case of an adverse situation.
“We will have to see when it happens. We have an emergency committee in SAFF that will take a decision in case of a withdrawal or absence.
“We will try to have the tournament with eight teams and maybe invite another team from the region to participate at short notice. But nothing is decided yet,” SAFF general secretary Anwar-ul-Haq said.
Group A: India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan
Group B: Afghanistan, Maldives, Bhutan, Bangladesh
December 23: India vs Pakistan, Nepal vs Sri Lanka;
December 24: Afghanistan vs Bangladesh, Maldives vs Bhutan;
December 25: India vs Sri Lanka, Nepal vs Pakistan;
December 26: Afghanistan vs Bhutan, Nepal Maldives vs Bangladesh;
December 27: India vs Nepal, Sri Lanka vs Pakistan;
December 28: Afghanistan vs Maldives, Bhutan vs Bangladesh;
December 29 and 30: Rest days;
December 31: Semifinals;
January 1 and 2: Rest days;
January 3: Final.
While Afghanistan and India, being the finalists from the 2013 edition (Afghanistan beat six-time champion India 2-0 for its first title), have been seeded first and second and put in separate groups, Nepal and Maldives, as losing semifinalists, have also been clubbed separately.
Interestingly, while India’s chief coach Stephen Constantine is on record saying he would prefer fielding the Under-19 team in the competition, Das insisted that the full-strength senior team would be available even though the tournament begins just three days after the Indian Super League ends.
Das also made it clear that the AIFF was not in favour of two domestic leagues in the country. “There is consensus that there has to be one, long league. How we go about it is a different question and there is no time span that I can give.
“Whether we merge the I-League and the ISL or bring them together in a completely different format or something else. We are agreed on the fact that one continuous, extended league is preferable to two short ones,” Das said.