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SAFF Championship 2021 to be moved out of Dhaka as Bhutan withdraws due to COVID-19

THE LONG AWAITED RETURN of the SAFF Championship, scheduled for this year, has been moved from its earlier selected venue of Dhaka, Bangladesh.

The tournament has also lost one of its six scheduled participants, with Bhutan pulling out of the competition citing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photo Courtesy - SAFF

The dates are also likely to be changed. The tournament was scheduled for mid-September but the All India Football Federation said it would prefer to have the tournament played within the FIFA international window of August 31 to September 7.

So as things stand now, SAFF Championship 2021 will be a 5 team affair (Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives). The new proposed format for the tourney is that of a single leg round robin, where each team plays the other once, with the top two teams in the points table qualifying for the final.

Also, the Bangabandhu Stadium in Dhaka is undergoing renovations, so the Bangladesh Football Federation has proposed to hold it in Sylhet or Chittagong. Indian football fans are familiar with Chittagong, where the Sheikh Kamal International Club Cup 2019 tournament was held with three Indian clubs (Mohun Bagan, Chennai City FC and Gokulam Kerla FC) participating in the AFC-recognized competition.

The teams are likely to be kept inside a bio-bubble. According to a statement from SAFF,

"The Covid-19 scenario in our region is spiking and as much as we would love to see spectators in the stadium, we will not take any chance to bring the spectators to the stadium seeing the current scenario. Anyhow if the pandemic scenario is better in the host city 30/40% spectator may be allowed after consultation with Bangladesh Football Federation (BFF)."

Further communication from SAFF is expected mid-July regarding whether the sponsors agree with the time-frame, and other aspects of organizing the tournament.

If things go according to the current plan, the Indian national team will get to play four group stage matches, followed by one possible final match, with games taking place possibly every other day; which provides an opportunity for increased rotation in the squad.

India have often treated SAFF Championship as an experimental tournament. The 7 times champions have traditionally tried out young players in this competition, with the previous head coach Stephen Constantine even opting to send an U-23 squad to the previous edition of the tournament, which was held in 2018.

For current head coach Igor Stimac, however, this tournament may be a good warm-up opportunity for the senior national team ahead of their AFC Asian Cup qualifiers campaign which begins in February. Last month the coach had expressed hope that the Blue Tigers would get to play two friendlies each in September and October. If that plan works out, then we may see India hand out some crucial debuts to young players in SAFF before moving on to play against tougher opponents in the October friendlies.

The last time India lifted the SAFF Championship trophy was in 2015-16, when it was held in Trivandrum, Kerala.

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