Nepal move a step closer in SAFF ambitionNepal break the semi-final jinx to enter the tournament final in 28 years and instill a new hope in the football fraternity.
Nepal produced their best ever run in the SAFF Championship despite losing 3-0 against India in the title decider of the sub-continental football tournament in Male on Saturday.
Nepal broke the semi-final jinx entering the final for the first time in 28 years and instilled a new hope to the football fraternity. However, India once again proved that they were the best and the team to beat in the sub-continent.
While it was a record eighth title among 13 editions of the games for India, Nepal reached the final for the first time since the game's inception in 1993. The South Asian giants India, though, made a sluggish start playing 1-1 and 0-0 draws against Bangladesh and Sri Lanka respectively in the group stage, they bounced back in the last two games with 1-0 win over Nepal and 3-1 over hosts Maldives to book a place in the final.
The team delivered when they were under a must-win pressure. They would have crashed out from the group stage had they lost any one of the group stage matches against Nepal or the Maldives. But they showed their class and proved they were level apart from other sides.
In the past couple of decades, India have made huge investments in football and this has been reflected on the pitch. India's assistant coach Sanmugham Venkatesh pointed out Indian football was heading in the right direction. The South Asian giants have been eying higher level in Asian football and they made it to the finals of the AFC Asian Cup in 2011 and 2019 editions.
Nepal, meanwhile, lost twice against India in the SAFF — 1-0 in the group stage and 3-0 in the final. En route to the final, they edged Maldives 1-0 in their opening match, beat Sri Lanka 3-2 before losing to India and playing 1-1 draw against Bangladesh in their group matches.
Among four matches played against India in the last two months, they won three and one match finished in a draw. Looking from Nepal's perspective, India are really tough opponents for Nepal and the traditional approach that Nepal always play better against India, they always put up a tough fight will take Nepali football nowhere, says football expert and league committee coordinator Sanjiv Mishra.
"India exhibited that they were level apart from the rest of the teams in the South Asian region. The success and statistics itself speak about that. Although they failed to live up to expectations in the first two matches they proved they were the best in the region," said Mishra.
He also points out that the outcome of the game could herald a new beginning for Nepali football. "The tag of incessant failure would be removed from the games since Nepal achieved what they had never done before," said Mishra. "This would instill new confidence and hope and is proof that Nepali football was heading in the right direction."
The Almutairi factor
Nepal's vibrant Kuwaiti head coach Abdullah Almutairi needs to be given a decent credit for the team's rise along with the All Nepal Football Association management.
Almutairi not only made drastic changes in the national squad introducing half a dozen young and new faces. He axed 13 players who were in the previous national squad before he took the charge. Some of the new faces including Ayush Ghalan and Manish Dangi among others paid off the faith.
He should also be credited for instilling confidence, uniting the team and giving a message that no one was star in the team. In fact, none of the players' positions were cemented in the starting lineup which increased competition among the players for place in the team. The Kuwaiti rotated the squad in all games.
India captain Sunil Chhetri's statement on the All India Football Federation website ahead of the final could be enough to shed light on Nepal's team effort and unity. "They (Nepal) may not have an extraordinary player in their ranks like Ali Ashfaq. But as far as attacking and defending are concerned, they do it as a team. They have been the best team that plays as a team in this Championship – they fight as a team," he said.
After entering the final, he announced that the final against India would be his last match in charge of the Nepali team and that he would never come again. In fact, it was the third time he had announced his resignation — with the first two coming via his Facebook posts.
“As an individual, he has every right to quit the job. But the question that arises is whether it was the right time to make such announcements,” said former national midfielder Bhola Silwal. “Should not he have waited until his side played their most crucial match of history. Did not such an announcement make a psychological impact on the team.”
Before heading for the SAFF, ANFA had arranged for some good and lengthy preparations at home and abroad training to prepare the team for the tournament. ANFA had arranged for a two-week training camp in Qatar, where they also played a couple of friendlies. They also played two friendlies against India at the Dasharath Stadium in September before heading for Qatar.
“Making it to the final of the SAFF Championship itself is an achievement. The players, coach and the ANFA management have worked really hard for this. Nepal must carry on the momentum for the qualitative growth of the game,” added Silwal.