Afghanistan take on Maldives, Pakistan face Sri Lanka in openers: SAFF Championship begins today

KARACHI: The 6th edition of South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship is starting at the People’s Stadium here on Wednesday (today). Eight teams of the SAARC Region are participating in this 11-day mega soccer event.
Bangladesh are the defending champions. India, Sri Lanka, hosts Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Malidives and Bhutan are the other participating teams. Two matches will be played on the opening day – Afghanistan take on Maldives and Pakistan face Sri Lanka. Governor Sindh Dr Ishratul Ibad Khan will be the chief guest and inaugurate the championship. The final of the championship will be played on December 17. The Peoples Football Stadium has the capacity of 20 to 25,000 spectators and 12,000 tickets have been sold. The eight teams participating have been divided into two groups, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Maldives are in Group A while Group B comprises Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Bhutan. A total of 15 matches will be played during the championship, eight under floodlights including the final.

Pakistan are boosted by the inclusion of defender Zesh Rehman, who plays for English Premiership Club Fulham. Rehman, who had his first Premiership start against Liverpool last year, said he would like to be a role model for both Pakistani and Asian players. “I will be very happy if I can make a difference for Pakistan in the tournament,” said Rehman. Meanwhile, the Indian football team, under the captainship of Baichung Bhutia, arrived here on Tuesday afternoon. The Indian team received a warm welcome at the Jinnah International Airport.

AFP adds: Afghanistan, where the Taliban once shaved the heads of a visiting football team for wearing shorts, is hoping to raise its profile in the eight-nation tournament. “We want to lay the foundation so that in two or three years the Afghan team is able to compete in the Asian arena,” said the team’s new German coach Klaus Staerk. Germany, which will host football’s World Cup in 2006, is helping Afghan footballers and also financed a 10-day training camp in a German town earlier this year. Football and cricket have become the most popular sports in Afghanistan since the repressive Taliban regime was toppled in late 2001 by a US-led military operation. Along with outlawing kite-flying and other pastimes in their bid to create the world’s purest Islamic state, the fundamentalists forbade men from playing football in shorts.

Five years ago they shaved the heads of a visiting Pakistani team who defied the ban. Under the US-backed government of President Hamid Karzai all such edicts were lifted, and Afghanistan will open their campaign in SAFF when they play last editions runners-up the Maldives on Wednesday. They are placed in Group A, where they will also play against 1997 bronze medallist Pakistan on Friday and Sri Lanka on Sunday. Afghanistan finished seventh in the 2003 edition at Dhaka, losing to Sri Lanka (0-1), India (0-4) and Pakistan (0-1).

Staerk admits even basic issues like accommodation and nutrition are problematic for his team, with none of the Afghan players having a job. “So it’s difficult to get fit and achieve higher aims, but we will give it the best try,” he said.

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