DHAKA: Pakistan’s senior team will play its first match in more than three years as the SAFF Suzuki Cup kicks off in Bangladesh on Tuesday with seven teams including regional heavyweights India set to battle it out over the next two weeks for South Asia’s top football prize.
When Pakistan face Nepal in the Group ‘A’ opener at the Bangabandhu National Stadium, it will be precisely 1260 days since its senior team last took to the pitch in a 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier against Yemen.
Since that qualifier in March 2015, Pakistan football has been in turmoil off the pitch but it now returns to action against a team it has beaten on its recent return to the international fold.
Pakistan beat Nepal 2-1 at the recently-concluded Asian Games, where an under-23 team takes part with only three over-age players in the team.
“Of course, when you don’t play for three years, you lose many things,” Pakistan’s Brazilian coach Jose Antonio Nogueira told reporters on Sunday. “We are now trying to rebuild the team and trying to do our best in the SAFF Championship.
“During the gap, the players didn’t do anything. Now we are trying to recover and hope to repay something. There were domestic competitions in the last three years,” added the 52-year-old who took charge in March.
Pakistan, who didn’t take part in last edition of the SAFF Cup in India, will also play hosts Bangladesh and Bhutan in Group ‘A’.
“All four teams from Group ‘A’ want to qualify for the next round but in my opinion, Bangladesh are favourites because they are playing at home,” said Nogueira.
Apart from Bangladesh, none of the other three teams have ever lifted the SAFF Cup.
Nepal coach Bal Gopal Maharjan doesn’t think the loss to Pakistan at the Asian Games counts for much as they hope to start their bid for a maiden regional crown with a victory.
“SAFF and Asian Games are totally different events and the approach will also be different,” he told reporters. “There are massive changes in the line-up as we can field our senior players. We played with defensive mind-set in Indonesia but that will change as well.”
Bhutan, who play Bangladesh in Tuesday’s second match, are resting their hopes on star forward Chencho Gyeltshen.
“Most of the players in our team are new but our target is to reach the final, if possible,” said the striker who plays his club football in India.
Bangladesh, meanwhile, will be looking to use home support to their advantage as they look to add a second SAFF Cup title to the one they won in 2003.
“We’re quite confident about our chances,” Bangladesh Football Federation (BFF) said at the trophy unveiling ceremony on Sunday.
There is little doubt though which team starts the tournament as overwhelming favourites. Defending champions India are looking to clinch a record-extending eighth title and they begin their campaign in a three-team Group ‘B’ alongside one-time champions Sri Lanka and Maldives.
Looking towards next year’s AFC Asian Cup, Indian coach Stephan Constantine is using an under-23 squad at the SAFF Cup.
“I have always looked to this opportunity to provide some international experience to the youngsters and that’s why we have come with a U-23 squad,” he told reporters upon the team’s arrival in Bangladesh. “After the SAFF Championship, we will have another group of players who will be a little more prepared for the future, say the AFC Asian Cup in January.
“Obviously, we have come to win the tournament as we have always done. We have a fair chance of getting the job done but I won’t say that we’re going to start as favourites, The whole squad is eagerly waiting to get the ball rolling. Everyone will be up for the game against us and it’ll be a great experience for all of us.”
Sri Lanka too come into the tournament hopeful of ending it as winners. “Our main target is to win the SAFF Cup,” said coach Mohamed Nizam Pakeer Ali. “I cannot say it as a certainty but the players are feeling good mentally.”
First played in 1993, the biennial SAFF Cup has historically featured the seven teams that form a part of the South Asian Football Federation. Afghanistan became a part of the SAFF in 2005 but withdrew in 2015 to join the Central Asian Football Federation (CAFF).
The tournament was known as the South Asian Association of regional co-operation (SAARC) Gold Cup in the inaugural 1993 edition before being changed to the South Asian Gold Cup in 1995. It was only in the third edition held in 1997 at Nepal that the tournament began to be called as the SAFF Cup.