India to play Pakistan on opening day of 2015 SAFF Cup

New Delhi, Sep 16 (IANS) Six-time winners India were drawn to play against Pakistan on the opening day of the 2015 South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) tournament amidst an ongoing diplomatic logjam posing a major obstacle in sporting ties between the two nations.

The 12th edition of the tournament will be held in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, from December 23 to January 3. Nepal will play Sri Lanka in the opening match of the competition followed by the India vs Pakistan match on the same day.

The tournament draw, held here on Wednesday, clubbed India with Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka in Group A while Afghanistan, Bhutan, the Maldives and Bangladesh will constitute Group B.

India’ next two group matches are against Sri Lanka on December 25 and Nepal two days later.

The top two teams from each group will qualify for the semi-finals to be held on December 31, followed by the final on January 3, next year.

SAFF president Kazi Md. Salahuddin of Bangladesh hoped that the tournament will continue to develop the game in the region.

“Today, football in South Asia is developing rapidly and we are proud that the SAFF Championship is South Asia’s top football event. This year we welcome Suzuki as our title sponsor. We look forward to Suzuki’s support in building the profile of SAFF Suzuki Cup and elevating its stature across Asia,” he said.

All India Football Federation (AIFF) secretary Kushal Das said he was hopeful that India, the most successful team in the regional tournament, will produce a creditable display.

India lost to Afghanistan in the final of the 2013 edition. The defending champions will make its final appearance in the tournament after deciding to be part of another regional football organisation — the Central Asia Football Association — from next year.

Das also hoped that the diplomatic tension between India and Pakistan will not prove to be a hindrance to host the neighbouring country. Even diplomatic talks have failed to provide a solution.

“Well, we have to face it as it comes. But until now I have not heard of any reservation from the government on Pakistan playing in the tournament. We have hosted Pakistan in the 2011 edition of the tournament before,” Das said on the sidelines of the event here on Wednesday.

“We have also organised two friendly matches against them as recently as in August, last year. I think it is important to follow the existing process of the government. There is a time span for it, if we follow it then I don’t foresee any problem.

“In case of a force majeure situation, SAFF has to decide the next course of action,” he added.

Asked about any contingency plan in case of a Pakistan no-show, SAFF general secretary Anwarul Huq said that nothing has been decided yet and they will act according to the situation. But he ruled out the possibility of shifting the venue from India to any other member country in such a scenario.

“It didn’t happen before. We are not expecting anything like that. But if it happens, there is an emergency committee in SAFF. They have to then decide the alternative, whether to invite another team to fill up the gap or to go ahead with a country less,” he said.

“No reserve team has been kept on stand-by. The emergency committee will decide whether to invite any Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) country or any other country to fill up the gap. But we will prefer to hold the tournament with eight teams.”

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