The next edition of SAFF Championship or SAFF Suzuki Cup will kick off in Bangladesh today and pre-tournament circumstances appear to be favorable for Maldives. The group, the fixtures and recent form of participating teams summed up, gives the indication that this is Maldives’ best chance to win the title for the second time.
After humiliating defeat against Iran in the World Cup Qualification in 1997, Maldives kicked off their first SAFF Championship experience in Nepal, the same year without number of key players. It was a shock for many to see the team reach the final after (literally) a hard-fought victory against biggest rivals of that time, Sri Lanka in the semi-final. But as expected by many, India easily beat Maldives to claim the title.
In 2003, Maldives reached the final in Bangladesh, without much expectation from the public, but simply by self-belief and proved to be so as Maldives were beaten by Bangladesh on penalties in the final. Then came 2008, when Maldives co-hosted the tournament with Sri Lanka and had a player of distinct class in Ali Ashfaq. Maldives had to give their best and Ali Ashfaq had to finish the final battered and with blood dripping off his face to record first competitive victory against India and to win the title. The message was clear, Maldives was no longer the underdog of the region with potential only.
But the title has eluded us since then and India has been the biggest obstacle, either in the semi final or final.
But the story is different this time. The tournament has gone back to a 7 team format after Afghanistan moved away from the SAFF. Maldives lies in group B with India and Sri Lanka, yes that itself is a relief because Maldives will avoid India in the semi-final if we progress from the group stage. Another respite is that it has been ages since Sri Lanka has beaten Maldives. The neighbors are no longer the force Maldives feared back in 90s. Their approach to the game has changed and their standard has deteriorated so badly that Maldives has since beaten them by 10-0 in on one of the editions of this tournament. Also, there are just three teams in the group, one victory is likely to guarantee a place in the semi-final.
But the biggest relief is that India is no longer serious about this competition and continuing with their habit of sending youth teams. On this occasion Indian team will feature number of under 17 players. Maldives will also have the opportunity start the competition after watching the game between India and Sri Lanka which would be a good opportunity to assess the quality of the teams we are grouped with.
Bangladesh could be the trickiest opponent to face in the semi-final taking into consideration some of their recent most performances against supposedly bigger teams. That being said our last encounter against them in 2016 finished 5-0 to the Maldives. Looking at other teams in Group A, few years back Nepal looked like it was going to become a force in the region. But results have been poor recently and not much is expected from Nepal this time. The situation is similar with Pakistan. Since Maldives beat Pakistan in 2003 semi-final, they have never been able to get a better result against Maldives. And then there is Bhutan that Maldives beat 7-0 earlier this year which incidentally is the proudest moment of coach Segrt to date in the helm of the national team.
Considering all these facts, it is fair to say that the road to glory is not as tough as previous tournaments for Maldives. Some may argue whether the team has the caliber to repeat the success of 2008 without key players such as Ashfag, Imran and Umair but the group is favorable and so are the fixtures and sometimes these little things play a key role in highly competitive tournaments.
To be fair and honest a huge celebration parade on Sinamale’ bridge is a real possibility if we don’t fumble and make a mess from now until the end of the tournament.