Thinley Namgay

The upcoming 2023 South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship in India is set to witness a more competitive atmosphere with the inclusion of Kuwait and Lebanon as two new participating countries among the eight.

Recognising their competence in Asian football, the organisers extended invitations to Kuwait and Lebanon, breaking the tradition of exclusively including countries from the SAARC region. With a record eight titles, India has historically dominated the championship.

Football enthusiasts eagerly anticipate a more fiercely contested tournament as a result of the expanded participant base.

Tsenda Dorji, a striker from Bhutan’s national team, expressed excitement about the challenge posed by the additional teams. Notably, Bhutan has never played against Lebanon before. Tsenda stated, “Our training, including gym sessions, is on track, and we will give our best efforts on the field.”

Bhutan previously faced Kuwait in the 2000 Asian Cup Qualifier, suffering a 0-20 defeat.

Bhutan’s most successful campaign in the SAFF Championship was in 2008 when they reached the semifinals but narrowly lost 2-1 to India in a highly contested match in the Maldives.

The 14th SAFF Championship is scheduled to be held in Bengaluru, India, from June 21 to July 3, featuring Bhutan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Pakistan, Kuwait, and Lebanon.

The groupings for the tournament will be determined on May 17 in New Delhi.

Phuntsho Wangdi, the Bhutan Football Federation’s media and marketing officer, acknowledged the strength of Kuwait and Lebanon, considering them superior to any country within the SAARC region. Phuntsho stated, “This will be an unprecedented and highly challenging tournament.”

He further added: “Currently, Lebanon is considered the strongest team among the participants.”

Some football enthusiasts expressed concerns about Bhutan’s limited international appearances in recent years, making the SAFF Championship a formidable challenge for them.

In the Prime Ministers’ Three Nations Cup held in Nepal in March, Bhutan drew 1-1 against Nepal but suffered a 2-1 loss to Laos.

Many anticipate that Kuwait and Lebanon will be strong contenders for the title alongside India and Bangladesh.

In friendly matches earlier this year, Kuwait achieved victories over the Philippines (2-0) and Tajikistan (2-1). Additionally, they secured a notable 1-0 win against the United Arab Emirates in the 25th Arabian Gulf Cup held in January.

On the other hand, Lebanon faced a 2-0 defeat against Oman in a friendly match in March.

In the most recent FIFA ranking, Lebanon holds the 99th position, followed closely by India at 101st. Kuwait is ranked 143rd, the Maldives at 154th, Nepal at 174th, Bhutan at 185th, Bangladesh at 192nd, and Pakistan at 195th.