September 11, 2013… Kathmandu was a teeming mass of people mostly from Afghanistan, perhaps enjoying the happiest day of their life. 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 perception of world towards Afghanistan.
Two years hence, Afghanistan is still a strife-torn country but the football team has 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 its final appearance in the SAFF championship is determined to leave a mark in the championship. “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.
Nepal will take on Sri Lanka in the opening match.
In many ways, the SAFF Cup represents varying ambitions of the seven competing teams. For host India, SAFF Suzuki Cup will be barometer by which its 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, SAFF Cup will be a test of character for his players. It remains to be seen if Indian players can carry on their ISL form into the SAFF championship.
Indian captain Sunil Chetri said 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 host we would like to win the tournament and pressure will be on us to perform,’’ he said.
With the withdrawal of Pakistan, Group ‘A’ comprising India, Nepal and Sri Lanka is relatively a week group. India despite the rustiness will be the favourite to top the group and qualify for the semifinals.
Sri Lanka was the first team to arrive in the State capital two weeks ago and the team nurtures the ambition of reaching at least the final.
Nepal which has shown tremendous improvement in recent times is hopeful of catching its relatively stronger opponents off guard in Group ‘A’. Nepal’s German coach Patrick Aussems sounded optimistic of his team’s chances.
Maldives, which has prepared meticulously under Riki Herbert for this championship having spent three weeks in Malaysia, aims to improve its dismal record in this championship since 2008. However, it is drawn in the toughest of the two groups — Group ‘B’ comprising 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.
Platini vows to fight ‘injustice’
ISL stars: Sunil Chhetri’s pick
SAFF Cup to kick off on Wednesday
Sepp Blatter must leave FIFA apartment by February