The inaugural edition of South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) under-18 championship that begins today will be a platform for the participating teams from South Asia to experience international matches for the first time.
Except for Bangladesh’s U-18 team that played international tournaments, Bhutan, India, Pakistan, Nepal, and the Maldives will play their first international match at Changlingmithang, Thimphu.
Coaches and captains of the teams said that the championship would play a vital role in helping improve women’s football in the region.
Considering strategic grassroots programmes and after India’s under-15 team won the second edition of SAFF U-15 championship last month, the participating teams said that India’s U-18 could be the toughest contender.
Bhutan’s coach Sung Jea Lee said that it was his aim to record a win against India. “If we can do better with India, I feel that we can perform better with the Maldives. We are also aiming for the semi-final spot.”
Bhutan, India, and the Maldives are placed in the same pool.
Bhutan will play India in the opening match of the championship at Changlingmithang later in the evening today.
Sung Jea Lee said that women’s football saw drastic improvement over the years and the team would focus on playing good games in the championship. “I am looking for an unexpected performance as we saw last month in U-15 championship.”
Skipper Galey Wangmo said winning women’s super league earlier this year helped boost confidence and gain games experiences for the team. “The league had players from India playing and this gave us the exposure similar to playing international matches,” she said. “With the support from home crowd, we expect to play well and achieve good result at the end.”
Despite good performance in the under-15 championship last month, Bangladesh ended the championship in disappointment. “We lost our final to India. However, we are entering the inaugural edition of the championship , finishing at the top of AFC under-16 women’s championship 2019 qualifiers’ first round playoffs. We aim to play final and win the championship,” said Bangladesh coach Golam Rabbani Choton
Bangladesh has 10 players who played the final round of AFC championship last year, 13 players from U-15 squad that finished runners up in SAFF championship last month.
India is participating in the championship to help its young squad prepare for the AFC qualifiers. The squad could not call any under 15 players that lifted SAFF U-15 at Changlingmithang last month.
India’s coach Alex Mario said the tournament would be an opportunity for the players to test themselves ahead of AFC Cup qualifiers. “They will get to play more matches and gain more experiences to develop,” he said. “Winning the championship would be wonderful but it’s not only the focus of the team.”
Pakistan’s coach Mohammad Siddique Sheikh said the team’s preparation was hampered by more than three years of FIFA ban.
“We could not select the girls who could represent such a vast country because of time constraints. Although we had a long selection camp we could not hold training camp as expected,” Mohammad Siddique Sheikh said. “The championship will be preparation for Pakistan to build on the grassroots and football development.”
SAFF U-18 championship is the first international competition for the girls from the Maldives. It is the only team that has not taken part in U-15 SAFF championship so far.
Coach Anil Ismail said the championship would be the start of footballing career for the Maldivian girls who came forward to play despite the cultural setbacks. “We expect to gain experiences and learn essential disciplines from the tournament. This will help us perform better.”