India versus Pakistan clashes in sports always create a buzz among fans on both sides of the border. Even if the difference in quality between the two competing sides vast enough to make the contest seem a one-sided affair.

And yet, there is a degree of anticipation among football fans in India as the hosts take on Pakistan in their opening match of the 2023 SAFF Championship at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium, Bengaluru on Wednesday.

This is set to be the first time since 2014 that Pakistan plays in India, but for a while, there were major doubts over the match taking place altogether.

The match has largely been overshadowed by doubts over Pakistan’s participation in the regional tournament. The All India Football Federation – the governming body for the sport in India – had confirmed Pakistan’s participation on May 14 but it took until June 19, two days before kick-off, for Pakistan to be issued visas by the Indian government.

The Pakistan team had an anxious wait in Mauritius, where they were playing a four-nation tournament, to know if they would get to travel to India. But after receiving their visas, they are expected to leave Mauritius on Tuesday evening and land in Mumbai some time after midnight. There they will have to wait for a connecting flight to Bengaluru until the wee hours of Wednesday. Those are hardly ideal preparations for a highly-anticipated clash.

And so India, fresh after winning the Intercontinental Cup, take on a tired and jet-lagged Pakistan side who are likely to reach Bengaluru less than 12 hours before the scheduled kick-off. Add to that the fact that India are currently ranked 101 in the Fifa men’s football rankings, 94 spots above Pakistan, makes them firm favourites to win on Wednesday.

But for India coach Igor Stimac, the difference in rankings and Pakistan’s hectic schedule will matter little on Wednesday.

“Forget the rankings,” proclaimed Stimac in the pre-tournament press conference in Bengaluru. “Last night I watched the match Pakistan played against Kenya which is 102 in the rankings. Pakistan were the better side than Kenya away from home. They created more chances, they were more aggressive. Obviously they were defending deep but from those positions they attacked with quality. They have six-seven players from abroad with two players playing in England and one playing in Denmark’s first tier.”

Group A of the SAFF Championships

Team Fifa ranking
India 101
Kuwait 143
Nepal 174
Pakistan 195
Fifa rankings as of June 6, 2023

India’s other opponents

Beyond Pakistan, lie Nepal (ranked 174) and Kuwait (143) with the latter invited to the tournament along with Lebanon (99). In a region where India has been the dominant team for years, the presence of Kuwait and Lebanon is supposed to be a challenge for India. That India manage to comfortably beat Lebanon in the Intercontinental Cup bodes well for the Blue Tigers.

Stimac, however, refused to be drawn into any conversation around India being favourites to win the title come July 4.

“Let’s not mislead the public. Let’s not speak about rankings. We have a very serious group here, very serious competition. No matter the rankings, we are going to face tough opponents. Don’t be misled by the great performance we had against Lebanon. Now everyday is a new challenge,” the Croatian said.

Indian fans will see a familiar face coaching the Nepal side in former Gokulam Kerala FC and NorthEast United FC manager Vincenzo Alberto Annese. The Italian was appointed as Nepal’s manager in March this year and has overseen two wins, one loss and a draw apiece in his short stint.

Kuwait, meanwhile, come to India days after beating Zambia and Sudan in Egypt. The West Asian team are currently in a rebuilding phase after falling down the pecking order in Asian football. Having been suspended by Fifa multiple times in the 21st century, Kuwait are far from the team they were when they qualified for the 1982 Fifa World Cup or when they achieved their highest ranking of 24 in 1998.

India’s chances

That they are in a group which features two teams in a rebuilding phase and a team which barely made it to the competition, means that India, at least on paper, should comfortably make it to the semi-finals, and possibly, the final. To add to it, the record eight-time winners come into the tournament on the back of winning the Intercontinental Cup days ago.

But for Stimac, the results do not matter as long as his team sticks to the process.

“The mood is high but we have left behind whatever we did in Odisha,” Stimac said. “This is a totally new tournament, new teams are here, new approaches are here, and different climate conditions. We are coming from 40 degrees celcius to a very English weather, I would say. It is raining but beautiful weather for football. It will take a few days for us to settle down and adapt to the conditions.

“We are going to approach each game separately. Game by game, day by day. We are well aware of the strengths and weaknesses of our opponents. We are going to work on it.”

In their opener against Pakistan, arguably, India has a good chance to get off to a good start. The hosts are fresh, the opponents will be travel-fatigued. It may not quite be an even contest, but there’s always some intrigue that comes when the two nations meet.

Indian squad for SAFF Championship

Goalkeepers: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Amrinder Singh

Defenders: Subhasish Bose, Pritam Kotal, Sandesh Jhingan, Anwar Ali, Akash Mishra, Mehtab Singh, Rahul Bheke

Midfielders: Liston Colaco, Ashique Kuruniyan, Rohit Kumar, Udanta Singh, Anirudh Thapa, Naorem Mahesh Singh, Nikhil Poojary, Jeakson Singh, Sahal Abdul Samad, Lalengmawia Ralte, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Rowllin Borges, Nandha Kumar

Forwards: Sunil Chhetri, Rahim Ali, Ishan Pandita.

India’s group stage matches at SAFF Championship

India vs Pakistan, June 21, 7.30 pm IST

India vs Nepal, June 24, 7.30 pm IST

India vs Kuwait, June 27, 7.30 pm IST