India and Pakistan to renew football rivalry after five years, clubbed in same group in next month’s SAFF Cup
New Delhi: India and Pakistan are set to renew their football rivalry after nearly five years as the two neighbouring countries have been clubbed in the same group in the SAFF Cup to be held in Bengaluru from June 21 to July 4.
The draw of the 14th edition of the South Asian Football Federation Cup was held here on Wednesday with defending champions India, Pakistan, Kuwait and Nepal being clubbed in Group A. Lebanon, Maldives, Bangladesh and Bhutan are in Group B.
The group matches will be played in a round-robin league format and the top two teams in each group will qualify for the semifinals of the eight-nation regional tournament at the Kanteerava Stadium.
Lebanon and Kuwait — the two countries outside of South Asia — were invited to make the tournament more competitive. Lebanon are the highest ranked side in the tournament at 99th while Pakistan are the lowest at 195th. India are the second highest ranked side at 101st.
The Indo-Pak Group A match will be played on June 21 in the second match of the opening day after Kuwait face Nepal in the inaugural game.
India and Pakistan last played against each other in September 2018 in the semifinal of the 12th edition of the SAFF Cup in Dhaka. India won that match 3-1 but lost to Maldives 1-2 in the final.
Overall, India and Pakistan have officially played more than 20 international matches. Of the two, India have been the dominant side with more than a dozen wins under their belt.
India have won the SAFF Cup eight times while finishing runners-up four times. The only time India did not reach the final was in the fifth edition in 2003 in Dhaka when the country finished third.
The All India Football Federation (AIFF) is hopeful that Pakistan players and support staff will get visas to take part in the tournament.
“Pakistan has confirmed its participation in the tournament, that is why they are here in the draw. All the countries of the South Asian region have the right to play in this tournament,” AIFF president Kalyan Chaubey said after the draw.
“But things like grant of visas, providing security to the teams, these are not the job of any football federation of any country. The AIFF administration will coordinate with the concerned ministries of the government and we will get the answer with the passage of time.”
AIFF secretary general Shaji Prabhakaran told PTI that the Pakistani contingent has already applied for visas to travel to India and the processing of applications has begun.
“We don’t see any issue there. They (Pakistan contingent) have already applied for the visas and processing has begun,” said Prabhakaran, who was also present at the draw ceremony.
Pakistan did not feature in two tournaments out of the 13 editions held so far since 1993.
The Pakistan Football Federation could not send its team in the 2015 edition held in India due to internal issues. The country missed the 2021 edition in Maldives as it was serving suspension from FIFA. The suspension was lifted in June last year.
Asked if the AIFF has got any assurance from the government for the safe conduct of the tournament, Chaubey said, “The slogan of FIFA (world governing body) is FIFA unites the world through football. AIFF is a member association of FIFA.
“We don’t look at the caste, creed and religion under the FIFA Charter. When a player gets down to the ground wearing his or her national jersey, you don’t look at the caste and religion of that player, the player represents his or her country. Moreover, we can’t host an international tournament without permission from the government.”
SAFF general secretary Anwar-ul Huq said that the participating countries have assured the organisers that they will send their first national teams.
“We can assure you that Lebanon, Kuwait and all other participating teams will send their full national teams,” he said.
“We could have brought other countries as suggested by the AIFF, but their national teams were engaged, and we did not want any age-group teams for this tournament.”
India head coach Igor Stimac reiterated that the competitiveness of the tournament will be higher with the addition of the two teams from the Middle East.
“We need to behave and act as favourites to win the tournament. We welcome Kuwait and Lebanon as guests. Playing against them should help us in our preparations for the AFC Asian Cup,” said Stimac.
“A long duration camp was always something we were insisting on and we are going to use it to improve certain parts of our game, work more on the mental strength and passing confidence,” he said.