KATHMANDU: Pakistan will meet India for a third time in 11 days on Wednesday but this time it will be on a football pitch.

The arch-rivals faced off in Dubai twice during the last eight days at cricket’s T20 Asia Cup but they will now meet at the Dasharath Rangasala Stadium in Kathmandu for their Group ‘A’ opener of the SAFF Women’s Championship.

The tournament opens on Tuesday when hosts Nepal face Bhutan in Group ‘B’ and although the Indo-Pak football rivalry isn’t as storied as its cricketing counterpart, all eyes are on the match on Wednesday when Pakistan’s national team will take to the pitch for the first time in eight years.

“Playing after such a long time is exciting but at the same time is a bit challenging,” Pakistan head coach Adeel Rizki told a news conference during the trophy unveiling on Monday. “We have tried to put together our team, and have got good players. Pakistan is a very competitive team and will fight till the end and play good football.

“We are eagerly waiting for Thursday’s match. Everyone on the team is positive and we are very excited. We have players in our team who have played in UAE and England. We will try to do well in all the matches of the group stage. Our current team is good.”

Pakistan captain Maria Khan, who plays her football in the UAE, said these were “exciting times” for Pakistan football and she alongside England-based Nadia Khan will look to lift the players who have been in international wilderness since 2014.

Football in Pakistan has been hit by an institutional crisis in the Pakistan Football Federation for the better part of the last decade and the country has twice been suspended by FIFA in that time — the most recent being a 15-month ban which was lifted in June this year.

India too are coming off a FIFA ban but it lasted less than two weeks as the All India Football Federation was quick to sort out its matters.

India have won every edition of the SAFF Women’s Championship since its inception in 2010 and they’re eyeing a sixth title on the trot.

“We are prepared for the Championship and the girls are really motivated to start the matches,” India head coach Suren Chettri told reporters on Monday. “They are working hard for another title to defend. It’s always easy to win a championship but to maintain the winning streak, is another challenge we need to overcome.”

India have named a strong squad, with the likes of Aditi Chauhan, Ashalata Devi and Martina Thokchom in the squad. Dangmei Grace, who has been playing for Uzbekistani club Nasaf Qarshi, has also flown in to join the team for the SAFF Championship.

India and Pakistan have met only once at the tournament, back in its inaugural edition when the Indians ran out 8-0 winners in their semi-final clash.

That remains Pakistan’s best-ever finish at the event and if they are to emulate that feat, they will have to finish among the top two in a tricky group that also includes Bangladesh and Maldives.

Bangladesh reached the final in 2016 but head into the tournament on a high after winning a two-match series against higher-ranked Malaysia recently.

“Our girls are ready to take each match at a time and it is going to be a healthy competition,” Bangladesh head coach Golam Rabbani Choton said.

Maldives head coach Ahmed Dunga Shareef, meanwhile, felt his side were placed in a tough group but is ready for the challenges.

“We are in a group of death but we hope to give our best. We want to give fight to every team as we know it is going to be a competitive tournament,” said Shareef.

Four-time losing finalists Nepal headline the three-team Group ‘B’ which also has Bhutan and Sri Lanka and they are looking to finally taste success on home soil this time around.

“We have been training for seven weeks,” said head coach Kumar Thapa. “I believe we have a balanced team combined with senior/experienced players and newcomers. Their fusion will be fruitful and I assure everyone that we will display the best football.”

Nepal captain Anjila Tumbapo Subba said she was dreaming of leading her side to victory.

“As every captain dreams to win gold under their captaincy, I too dream the same,” she told reporters. “I don’t know whether others believe in us or not, but our whole team believes in each other which is our great strength. We are here to win and we will win.”

Bhutan hold the miserable record of never having won a match in the history of the tournament and coach Kyung Suk said his side were looking to “improve on previous results”.

Sri Lanka’s side, meanwhile, head into the tournament with only four weeks of practice due to economic recession that has hit the island country.

The final is on September 19.

Published in Dawn, September 6th, 2022

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