The South Asian Football Federation Football Championship has been Indian football’s happy hunting ground over the last three decades. India have won seven out of the 12 editions of the SAFF Championship and always enter the tournament as favourites.

The lack of competition in this tournament has often forced India to consider a move to another group like the Central Asian Football Association but that hasn’t quite materialised for different reasons.

India sent their U-23 team to this competition in 2018 and that was the original plan for the 2021 edition until the Covid-19 pandemic made the All India Football Federation alter their plans. The lack of opportunities to play other games for the Indian men’s football team during the pandemic has meant that India will send their full-strength senior team to this tournament for the first time since 2015, the last time India won this tournament.

India beat Afghanistan in the final in that edition. It was the third consecutive time the two teams had met in the showpiece game of the event making the title a straight battle between the two teams.

However, Afghanistan have moved on from the SAFF and no longer participate in the competition, making India’s path to the title even easier.

Most successful teams in SAFF Championship

Nation Champions Runners-up Third-place Fourth-place Semi-finalists
 India 7 (1993, 1997, 1999*, 2005, 2009, 2011*, 2015*) 4 (1995, 2008, 2013, 2018) 1 (2003)
 Maldives 2 (2008*, 2018) 3 (1997, 2003, 2009) 1 (1999) 4 (2005, 2011, 2013, 2015)
 Bangladesh 1 (2003*) 2 (1999, 2005) 1 (1995) 2 (1995, 2009*)
 Afghanistan 1 (2013) 2 (2011, 2015)
 Sri Lanka 1 (1995*) 1 (1993) 1 (1997) 3 (2008*, 2009, 2015)
   Nepal 1 (1993) 2 (1995, 1999) 3 (2011, 2013*, 2018)
 Pakistan 1 (1997) 2 (1993*, 2003) 2 (2005*, 2018)
 Bhutan 1 (2008)

But recent form and results against the other remaining SAFF nations – draws against Bangladesh and Nepal – have meant that India can’t afford to take things too lightly in Maldives, the host of the competition.

Bangladesh and Nepal are expected to provide the hardest test for India in the tournament with defending champions and hosts Maldives are also expected to be a tricky opponent.

2021 SAFF Championship Teams

Country Appearance Previous best performance Current FIFA ranking
 Bangladesh 12th Champions (2003) 189
 India 13th Champions (1993, 1997, 1999, 2005, 2009, 2011, 2015) 107
 Maldives 11th Champions (2008, 2018) 158
   Nepal 13th Third-Place (1993) 168
 Sri Lanka 13th Champions (1995) 205

Chhetri’s warning

Talismanic captain Sunil Chhetri fired a warning to his team that India would have to work very hard to make their superiority count against the rejuvenated SAFF nations.

“All the matches will be tough. Despite a little bit of superiority we may have, every game will be like a war to fight. We have to fight to the last minute. We cannot play 90%,” Chhetri said during a virtual press conference.

The captain also conceded that his team has not been at its best in the two international friendlies against Nepal in Kathmandu last month. They drew one and won the other.

“If we are talking about the two matches against Nepal, we have areas to improve and the head coach has conveyed that to us about that. We could have done better.

“Bangladesh have changed their coach (after World Cup qualifiers) but they are a very difficult side. In the two matches we played against Bangladesh in the last three-four months, it has been very tough. All the teams in the region have improved.

“So, we want to take it one game at a time. We are at the moment thinking about Bangladesh match only, we are not thinking about the final,” Chhetri said.

Lack of preparation

India have arrived in Male without a preparatory camp as the tournament falls outside the Fifa window and it wasn’t possible to have the players available from their respective clubs who have begun preparation for the upcoming Indian Super League season.

But the SAFF Championships, which ends on October 16, will be the last opportunity for the players to play international matches before the start of the third round of 2023 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers in February next year.

It is crucial for India to qualify for the now expended AFC Asian Cup, a tournament they successfully qualified for in 2019.

“We could not have a proper camp due to the circumstances. The AFC and SAFF have been forced to organise tournaments outside of the FIFA window (due to the pandemic) and we had to have an understanding with the ISL clubs to release players outside the FIFA window as they also want to do well.

“We said our national team will give up November and the ISL clubs to release players in September and October. We are thankful to the ISL clubs (for releasing the players for SAFF Championships).”

Stimac has preferred players from Bengaluru FC and ATK Mohun Bagan who have been in action in the AFC Cup and felt it will be advantageous to have those players as the tournament was held in Maldives.

“After playing in the AFC Cup, the BFC and ATK MB players also had their pre-season, so it’s an advantage while most of the other ISL sides are yet to have pre-season. So, we have to decide how many minutes we have to give to the players during the 90 minutes,” he said.


The training conditions in Maldives haven’t been the best so far and coach Stimac and captain Chhetri mentioned that during the press conference ahead of their tournament opener against Bangladesh on Monday.

However, the expectations from India despite the difficulties will be to come away with the trophy and also put in some encouraging performances to give the team the necessary confidence ahead of the Asian Cup qualifiers.

“We are in the favourite’s position to win the tournament and we will justify ourselves,” said Stimac. “The key is that we need to organise in a disciplined way and come back quickly after losing the ball.”

Captain Chhetri also echoed similar thoughts.

“When you play for your country, you want to win,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if we are favourites or underdogs or if it’s the SAFF Championship or the World Cup qualifiers. We are motivated to go out there and win and that’s what we will do here.”

India though would be expected to prevail over these challenges and also score some goals, an area where the team has struggled in recent times. The Blue Tigers are under pressure to live up to the favourites tag but how well they overcome this challenge will determine their readiness levels ahead of the all-important AFC Asian Cup qualifiers.

UPDATE: The AIFF confirmed on Sunday that the Indian men’s senior national team’s matches in the SAFF Championship will be telecast live on Eurosport.

(With PTI inputs)