The 2022 SAFF Women’s Championship has provided a lot of entertainment and talking points to reporters, fans and everyone in between. In my opinion, this is just the way sports should be, and for women’s football in southern Asia, the more conversation, the better.
As you read this with the group stages having come to a close, let me take you through the journey so far.
September 7, 2022 | India vs Pakistan
The good old “traditional rivalry” aspect didn’t really hold true here, considering the two sides hadn’t played each other in over eight years. The one thing both the nations had in common, though, apart from a border, is that both their football associations (FAs) had been banned by FIFA: the AIFF for eleven days, the PFF for eight years. Pakistan didn’t even have a FIFA World Ranking, while India sat 58th.
Let’s get to the match.
It started off cagey. You’d think that India would seize control of the match from the get-go and run away, but Pakistan defended hard. India were in a funk, and sometimes it takes anything, anything at all, to snap out of it. Pakistan captain Maria Khan, then, found herself at the unfortunate end of an own goal, deflected by the goalkeeper onto her shin; India had a breakthrough in the 20th minute. Just a minute later, a good link up for India resulted in Dangmei Grace running into the box and slotting it home at the near post.
(Talk about snapping out of the funk, eh?)
Pakistan then didn’t concede until the 94th minute, when a goal by Soumya Guguloth—the first of her international career—capped things off. Some would say three goals for India is under par, but their Head Coach Suren Chettri says: “To win a game, one goal is enough. Scoring three goals is a positive. A win is a win but there are still areas we need to work on, we will do that and come back stronger.”
Player of the match Grace Dangmei was in agreement. “The first match is very important, always,” she remarked. “It was a tough game for everyone. We all gave our best for this match and I hope we do even better going forward.”
September 10, 2022 | Maldives vs India
Out of the teams in India’s group, Pakistan were the wildcard. Since they hadn’t played for so long, no one really knew what to expect. Bangladesh—India’s third group game—definitely offered the toughest match-up, but I will save that for later.
Onto Maldives, a national team ranked 98 places lower than India in the world rankings. It could be a field day for the Indians if they played their cards right. A win here would confirm their qualification to the semi-final stage (which they have reached in every previous edition of the SAFF Women’s Championship).
The Maldives kit might have been red, but that night, India’s Anju Tamang was red hot. She dictated the midfield play, providing a solid link between the back-line and the front-line and made her presence felt on the field and on the scoresheet.
Four goals and two knee slides later, Anju was very proud of her first-ever international hattrick. “I’m really happy,” she said. “It’s all because of my teammates. We had been trying for so long to combine well and score more goals. All my goals are dedicated to the players and the staff.”
A wise person post-match said that 71% of the planet was covered by water, while the rest was covered by Anju Tamang that night (that might have been me). India had scored five past Maldives by the 55-minute mark, and then four in four minutes at the death to seal a nine-goal victory. It is also important to note here that they now had two clean sheets from their first two games and a better goal difference than Bangladesh.
“We just wanted to play good football and stick to our plan of being aggressive in the final third. Nine goals is a huge win for us,” said Head Coach Suren Chettri. He also only had good things to say about the player of the match, Anju Tamang. “I’d like to congratulate her for scoring four,” he said. “Anju has always been a hardworking player and has been part of this team for a long time. I always knew that she has the potential to score goals. We had a session yesterday where Anju could move into the final third and score. She did that today.”
Anju had a light-hearted moment as well when I asked her about all the goal celebrations that we witnessed on the field. She smiled and said, “The celebration comes from inside, you don’t have to practise it. But this knee slide that I did I have been doing in training as well, so it came automatically.”
All smiles for India and Bangladesh as the two teams collected six points each heading into two days of rest before their big match-up against each other.
September 13, 2022 | India vs Bangladesh
The fight for top spot in the group. 23 goals scored between the two sides in the competition. A cloudy calm evening at the Dasharath Stadium in Kathmandu, Nepal. India facing Bangladesh under the lights.
India entered this match with the upper hand. A draw would have been enough to earn them top spot in the group and face Bhutan in the semi-final. Of course, apart from the stats, the results from the previous five editions also favoured India. The two teams had met five times in the SAFF Women’s Championship before, and India were unbeaten in all, having scored 21 goals compared to Bangladesh’s two.
However, it was a different story on the day that catapulted Bangladesh into the history books, that too for the better. Right off the bat, they looked the better side, penetrating India’s half with carefully linked passes. Remember the funk India were in against Pakistan? Things looked similar in the opening ten minutes here as well, except this time there wasn’t any snapping out of it.
Bangladesh opened the scoring with a pass splitting India’s centre-back and fullback, followed by a close-range ground ball into the net. Another one followed ten minutes later, exposing the same right side of India. India needed to bounce back as the second half began. They earned a free-kick, which was shot wide, nothing too dangerous. Bangladesh scored their third, later on, at which point everyone in the stadium knew that we were counting down the minutes to a historic Bangladesh win.
Indian Head Coach Suren Chettri shared some of his thoughts post-match: “I’d like to congratulate Bangladesh. They had the hunger to win today, and it is a big loss for us.” He went on to say that he took responsibility for the performance on the night and would learn from it as India headed into the semi-finals.
Let’s look ahead now.
September 16, 2022 | Nepal vs India | Semi-final
Let me set the scene here. Out of the last five editions of the SAFF Women’s Championship, India have met Nepal in the final four times and in the semi-final once and have won on each of these occasions, the most recent victory having come on March 22, 2019, in Biratnagar, Nepal — the 2019 SAFF Women’s Championship final that was played out in front of 10,000+ home fans. It’s the same match in which Dalima Chibber scored that long-range stunning freekick and helped India defeat Nepal 3-1.
In this edition, Nepal were unbeaten in their group, having scored 10 goals and conceded none. Some might argue that they haven’t faced stiff competition yet, but that argument will be put to rest when they meet defending champions India in the semi-final. A 5:30pm local-time kick-off on a Friday evening for a more traditional south Asian football rivalry will hopefully ensure a packed crowd.
It’s been cloudy throughout the week, but hopefully only goals will rain on Friday night.