The last time India sent a near full-strength squad for the SAFF Championship was in 2015. Sunil Chhetri was still in his 20s and Afghanistan was still a part of the South Asian Football Federation. India won that edition of the biennial tournament after having lost in 2014 to Afghanistan. Chhetri, Jeje Lalpekhlua scored 6 of the 14 goals scored by the national team in six games.
An ageing Chhetri has now crossed 100 caps for India and will once again return to the 2021 edition of the tournament in Maldives. The tournament is essentially being used by the Indian national team for practice before the start of the third round of the Asian Cup qualifiers from February 2022. Admitting that at his age (37), reaching another 100 caps for India was impossible, Chhetri said that a return to the SAFF Cup for him was an opportunity to add to his longevity
“I am here to play for my country. I don’t take any opportunity for granted. I wanted to play 100 games. And now I will take whatever opportunity I get my way,” the Bengaluru FC captain stated.
‘Whatever opportunity’ is the key phrase that has dictated this Indian campaign. The timing of the Cup, falling right as pre-season for most ISL clubs begin to take shape, means that a camp and friendlies before the tournament was not a possibility.
“We couldn’t organise a preparation camp for obvious reasons. SAFF and AFC games are outside of the FIFA calendar. We spoke to the FSDL, ISL clubs, some of which are starting their pre-training. It is the busiest time in Indian football,” Stimac said during a virtual conference on Saturday. “Everyone has had to give up on something. It is not easy and it is not enough but I am grateful,” he added.
For the past couple of editions the SAFF Cup was treated as a tournament where India could send their U-23 players. After having won the title a record 7 times and being miles ahead in Fifa rankings as compared to the other teams in the competition, experience rather than winning was the mantra.
But this edition of the SAFF Cup has burgeoned in its importance. A severe lack of international games notwithstanding, it is the position of the coach that has essentially called for Chhetri and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu to be a part of this team. With an unclear future and whether a new contract is headed his way, Igor Stimac has a lot riding on the result of this tournament. Poor performances against Nepal, Bangladesh and Afghanistan during the team being under his charge has posed fresh questions on his tenure.
The location of the team in Maldives and their short duration in the island nation has ensured that training has been sub-par.
“We came here only four days ago. We have to travel to Male on speed boats. There are artificial turfs here. We are protecting our players so that they do not get injured. We are playing for 15-20 minutes, working on set pieces. Not much we can do over here,” said Stimac. He then added, “We are relying on the understanding that the players know each other very well.”
The only semblance of an advantage that India carry into the tournament is the presence of ATK Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC players. Eight players from these two teams have been playing in the AFC Cup and are match fit.
“After playing in the AFC Cup group stage matches, ATK Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC players continued with their pre-season, so it’s an advantage for us. Most of the other ISL sides are yet to start their pre-season. We will have to be careful about how many minutes we can give to those players,” said Stimac.
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