Defending champion and six-time winner India was grouped with Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan for the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) championship to be held here from September 1 to 11. India takes on Pakistan in the tournament opener.

After its match against Pakistan, India, in what appears to be a tricky group with two formidable teams in Bangladesh and Nepal (especially at home), will go on to meet them on September 3 and 5 respectively. The top two teams from each group will qualify for the semifinals before the tournament culminates in the final at the Dasharath Stadium on September 11.

At the draw ceremony, India (World No. 146) and Afghanistan (World No. 140) were the top seeds, being last edition’s finalists. The teams were placed at the head of each of the two groups — Group A and B respectively. At the end of the draw, Afghanistan was joined by Maldives, which finished third in 2011, Sri Lanka and Bhutan in its group.

Shubhankar Mukherjee, the Indian National Team Director, conceded that it was going to be quite challenging. “It’s a tough draw for us. To qualify for the semifinals this (Group A) looks the trickier of the two.”

As part of its preparation, India will play a friendly against Tajikistan on August 14 before returning for a national camp at Bangalore starting on August 16.

Speaking on the occasion, SAFF President Kazi Mohammed Salahuddin exuded confidence that the tournament would be a huge success and prove to be a harbinger for better things to come.

“If everyone, including the governments of the respective countries, come forward, we should be able to build wonderful football teams in the near future. In the last four-five years, we have conducted the SAFF championship, two women’s championships and an under-16 tournament. There is also a proposal to conduct an under-18 event. So things are looking good.”

The winner will be richer by $50,000, with the runner-up getting $25,000. The two losing semifinalists will bag $10,000 each.

(N. Sudarshan was in Kathmandu for the draw ceremony on invitation from World Sport Group (WSG) which is conducting the tournament in association with SAFF)

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