The SAFF Championship trophy has been reclaimed! It's back in India after six years. Igor Stimac has secured his first trophy as the national team's head coach.
On a rainy night in Maldives, Sunil Chhetri, Suresh Singh and Sahal Abdul Samad scored as India beat Nepal 3-0 to script a sweet end to a tournament that had a very bitter start.
India have been the finalists in 12 out of 13 editions of the SAFF Championship, winning it on a record eight occasions. The favourable end to the tournament was not really a surprise, however, the team and coach deserve credit for reacting in the best possible way when they had their backs against the wall. What did come as a surprise was the initial struggle of the regional giants in the competition that put them on the brink of elimination.
Tame draws against Bangladesh and Sri Lanka had India gasping for breath and they could only take a sigh of relief after a hard-fought 1-0 win over Nepal in the group stages. Another 3-1 win over the Maldives got them to the final. India have been recently struggling to get the expected results against the lower-ranked teams. The victory in the final was India's first convincing win over Nepal this year.
In the two friendlies between these two nations, played before the tournament, India were held to a draw before winning 2-1. Nepal have run India close in almost all of these matches. In the last three matches against Bangladesh, India have only one scrappy win to their name, besides two draws.
There are two ways to look at these results: that India who went to the tournament without a preparatory camp and paid the price for it in the initial matches. Their performance improved as the competition progressed. Another way to look at it is that the neighbours are progressing faster and the gap with India is declining at a fast rate.
Instead of dwelling on the Championship glory, we must introspect both the counts, to ensure sustained progress of the team.
The fact that India went to the SAFF Championship without a preparation camp was bound to hurt and it showed. All the other teams came into the tournament with proper training camps. As Stimac pointed out before the tournament, SAFF Championship was held outside the FIFA calendar and as a result, Indian players weren't available for the national camps. However, there is a need to strike a balance between the Indian Super League (ISL) clubs and the national duties, for both parties to benefit.
Similarly, the India Under-23 side, which is slated to play in the AFC U-23 Asian Cup qualifiers in UAE from 25 to 31 October, assembled in Bengaluru only on 17th and are scheduled to leave for UAE on 20th.
On the count of neighbours catching up to India, Bangladesh have proven to be a tough nut to crack. They had a league of 13 teams in 2021 which lasted nine months while last 11-team ISL season ran for four months.
There is a pressing need to increase the number of matches domestically, simply because the more you play, the better you get. The top teams in Asia and across the globe have longer leagues besides playing in several cup tournaments.
The ISL clubs currently play 20 matches a season in the league stages, it was expected to expand to a minimum of 27 games for each side in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic put the brakes on it. The 27-game ISL is now to start in 2022. But it can't be just about ISL, the third and second divisions also need to expand. A strong foundation is required for a sturdy top. The I-league next season will have 13 teams as compared to 11 in the previous, but more teams and matches are certainly required.
Japan's top division has 20 teams while South Korea's top professional league only has 12 teams but they play 38 games a season.
Also, the implementation of 3 (foreigners) + 1 (Asian) foreign player rule in ISL and I-League is welcome news no doubt. From the upcoming season, ISL clubs will only be allowed to sign six foreign players as compared to seven, and have four overseas footballers on the field at a given time as compared to five.
The need for such a rule is highlighted most by India's ever-goring dependence on talisman Sunil Chhetri. While India were poor tactically and in work rate in shambolic performances against Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in the SAFF Championship, the lack of goals haunted them the most. Chhetri accounted for five out of India's eight goals in the competition and scored against all teams except for Sri Lanka. His goals were the major reason why India could reach the summit clash.
But the lack of support for the 37-year-old is staggering. The deployment of foreign players in crucial positions like that of strikers, centre-backs at the club level has trimmed the pool of quality players.
India sent their U-23 team to the SAFF Championship in 2018, but it was only a good thing that the senior team made the trip this time around. Despite being looked down upon, the competition has provided India with a fair assessment of where things stand. It's time to iron out the flaws.