Reduced to a seven-team affair after Pakistan’s late pull-out, the 11th edition of South Asian Football Federation Championships will make a low-key beginning with Nepal taking on Sri Lanka in the opening match here tomorrow.
Pakistan withdrew from the regional biennial football event due to internal legal problems regarding the election of their national federation officials.
India and Pakistan were to clash in the opening match of the tournament tomorrow with Nepal and Sri Lanka match being the other fixture of the day. But after Pakistan’s pull-out, the opening day will have just one match, Nepal vs Sri Lanka at the Kariavattom Greenfield Stadium.
The Group A is now rendered just three teams – India, Nepal and Sri Lanka after Pakistan’s pull-out. India take on Sri Lanka on December 25 in their campaign opener.
Group B has defending champions Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Maldives and Bhutan.
Two teams from each of the two groups will make it to the semifinals.
Afghanistan, who beat India 2-0 in the final of the last edition in Kathmandu, will be playing in the SAFF Championships for the last time before joining the soon-to-be-created Central Asian Football Association.
India have won the tournament six times but it will not be easy for the Stephen Constantine-coached side to win the title in front of the home crowd.
Most of the top Indian players, including star striker Sunil Chhetri, played in the just-concluded Indian Super League. Chhetri and some other players joined the national team, which had a camp in Kochi as part of preparations for the championships, just a few days back as their clubs did not release them early.
Constantine had in the past also expressed his displeasure regarding late release of national team players before international matches, though the clubs are within their rights under FIFA rules to release players four days prior to a match.
Afghanistan are the highest ranked team in the tournament at 150th in the FIFA charts, followed by Maldives (160th), India (166th), Bangladesh (182nd), Bhutan (188th), Nepal (192nd) and Sri Lanka (194th).