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India’s SAFF loss, one week on

India’s SAFF loss, one week on

September 27, 2022

“Yeah, it’ll be interesting to see who India will play in the final.”

“India have never lost a match in the SAFF Women’s Championship, ever.”

“Incredible unbeaten streak by the Indian team…”

These were definitely some of the words floating about in the media tribune after India’s 9-0 win over Maldives. Surely India would go on to win their sixth title in a row, given their FIFA ranking (58), international exposure and experienced players? 

Image Credit – ANFA Media 

Well, the scoreline after the final group game raised some questions. A 3-0 loss against Bangladesh meant India had the tougher of the two semi-finals: a date with Nepal under lights on a Friday evening, where the rain and the crowds both would come pouring in.

One of these two would be the outcome: either India bounced back from the Bangladesh blip to steer their ship on course for yet another shot at the SAFF Women’s Championship, or the stars would align for Nepal, who would achieve something they never have before, but have always dreamt of doing. 

The young Odisha native Juli Kishan had been given the nod in the starting XI for the match against Bangladesh at right-back (India’s first-choice right-back Dalima Chhibber wasn’t part of the SAFF squad). Bangladesh exploited that wing and left Juli reeling, forcing Suren Chettri to sub her out before half-time. 

Hence, in the line-up against Nepal, there was only one change: Sweety Devi came into the defensive line for Juli Kishan. Manisha Panna shifted to right-back and Sweety Devi and Ashalata Devi controlled the centre. For Nepal, 17-year-old Preeti Rai came in for Rekha Poudel in the front line. 

And oh my god, what a move that was set to be.

The match kicked off, and the roar of the crowd began. Both teams had their fair share of possession, but there was something in the air that indicated an upset was around the corner. India built up a lot of their play from the wings: Manisha Panna was often found on the overlap and strikers found in the middle waiting for a looping ball. Anju Tamang, who essentially runs India’s midfield, was carrying the ball towards the goal line a lot more in anticipation of winning a corner or a successful cross. This opened up spaces in the midfield for Nepal to exploit, and they made sure to build up a lot of their play down the middle. With Sweety and Ashalata playing as a centre-back pairing for the first time this tournament, a lapse in communication could actually result in some threatening play for Nepal.

Image Credit – ANFA Media 

The first half definitely had the majority of the action. A miscommunication between Ratanbala Devi and Aditi Chauhan left the goalkeeper chasing the ball towards her own goal with Preeti Rai on her heels; thankfully, she managed a clearance. At the other end, Grace Dangmei had two clear-cut opportunities—she was at the right place at the right time—on the receiving end of crosses, but both were sent wayward of the target. 

We were approaching half-time, and the general thought was similar across both teams: “if we aren’t able to score in this half… let’s not concede”. 

Right before the half-time whistle, then, in the 47th minute, Nepal attacked down the middle. Sweety Devi toed the ball away, but only to Preeti Rai, who is only 4’10’’ but is a swift, feisty player. She drove down the right, taking two defenders with her, and pulled back, ensuring they were off balance. A powerful cross into the middle landed at the feet of Rashmi Kumari Ghising, who controlled it and slotted it into the side netting. 

A diving Aditi Chauhan was beaten, and that millisecond of silence went by in slow motion as the stadium soon erupted. Vibrations could be felt in every seat of the Dasharath Stadium, and a Nepal dogpile in the Indian box signified just how iconic that goal was.

Image Credit – ANFA Media 

A 17-year-old with the assist, a 20-year-old with the goal. Add their ages together and you get 37, which is still less than the difference in FIFA rankings between the two sides. 

Talking about the difference between the two sides, at half-time it was one — in favour of Nepal.

The second half went by quicker than the Indians would have hoped for. Nepal held the ball well, earned fouls and drove the ball to the corner flag at the very end. India were frustrated and unable to combine well. Some half chances were squandered by fatigued legs and an energetic Nepal side. 7,253 screamed in unison as the final whistle was blown. The Goliath of the SAFF Women’s Championship was on its knees, having been slayed by the Davidian Nepal. 

After the festivities, it was time for Suren Chettri to address the media. He kept his answers short and objective.

“We accept this loss.”

“Nepal is the winner today.”

“We didn’t finish our chances.”

Remember, until this tournament, no Indian coach had to address the media after a losing performance. Suren Chettri did it back-to-back. 

Player of the match Preeti Rai had some words to share too: “It feels amazing to win. For the past few days our coach has been telling us about the 2014 SF loss vs India. I’ve been thinking that if we meet India, we won’t let that happen again. Huge credit to the team.” 

Author Chris Jami once said, “to seek greatness is the only righteous vengeance.” Nepal sought greatness alright.

Nepal Head Coach Kumar Thapa stated that the two best teams were playing in the final and that it was set to be a cracker. He was also happy to justify the fan support. “I think they are still dancing out there”, he chuckled.

The 2022 SAFF Women’s Championship final was played between Nepal and Bangladesh in front of 15,730 fans. It was the only match where both teams managed to get on the scoresheet, with Bangladesh ultimately emerging victorious with the scoreline 3-1 in their favour. They were welcomed home in Dhaka with an open-bus parade and were paid bonuses by their national football federation and cricket board as well as the Bangladesh army. Good times.

Also Read – Aditi Chauhan exclusive: The journey, the lessons, the initiatives, and the road ahead

So what does this mean for India?

India returned home on the back of two losses, in a tournament they had never lost, ever. The trophy now lies in the hands of their neighbours, well deserved. 

No follow-up friendlies or exposure tours have been announced. In comparison, Pakistan are already in talks for a couple of friendlies in the November FIFA window. For now, the players get back to their domestic leagues, with the next major tournament being the South Asian Games in March 2023.

For us, the Indian fans, we have men’s international friendlies lined up followed by the U-17 FIFA Women’s World Cup hosted in India. But for the senior women, we will have to wait patiently. 2022 has been rough on them so far, what with them having to withdraw from the historic AFC Asian Cup due to a COVID outbreak and then letting the SAFF title slip from their hands after 12 long years. 

It’s time to rebuild and plan for things to come. Maybe a simple friendly to start with. Wouldn’t we love to see a match on home turf with a packed crowd? I reckon we would.

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