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Aug 25, 2013

2013 South Asian Cup preview

Nepal may be hosting the 2013 South Asian Cup, the premier football tournament for over a fifth of the world's population, but arrival at Kathmandu's Tribhuvan Airport is more akin to a rugby scrum. Visitors land in the Himalayan kingdom ready to negotiate Everest or the Annapurnas but the greatest challenge can be just getting in. The country is lucky it is so beautiful.

Seven of the eight nations participating in the biennial tournament, which kicks off on September 1 in the Nepali capital, will be hoping to delay their departure for as long as possible but not because of a reluctance to return to Tribhuvan. In a region not exactly swimming in continental trophies, the prize is a big one.

Indian striker Sunil Chhetri has already claimed that his team are favourites. To say they will be there or thereabouts is less of a prediction than a statement of historical fact. Of the nine editions held since it all started back in 1993, the boys in blue have won six and finished as runners-up twice. South Asia as a region is often dismissed as India and the rest due to the size and population of India, but in terms of football and this competition, it is description that is not too far off the mark.

But even winning this trophy can be slightly bitter-sweet for the world's second-most populous nation. It reminds that the Blue Tigers can rule the regional roost but they have yet to break out of South Asia to become anything approaching a power on the continental scene. The more India struggle elsewhere the more it turns to home for comfort yet the less satisfying that feels.

Already the 2015 Asian Cup is off the table and India tend to struggle against even against fairly modest opposition from elsewhere. Just earlier this month, a 3-0 loss to Tajikistan followed defeats at the hands of Myanmar, Palestine and Singapore -- the kind of opposition that India should be beating if they want to make strides in Asia. Wins over Taiwan and Guam don't get the pulses racing.

Despite that, Dutch coach Wim Koevermans knows that nothing less than victory in Nepal will do. He has first to finish in the top two in the much tougher-looking of the two groups and then head into the semi-finals. As well as the tepid warm-up results, there have been problems off the pitch as well. Two of the squad had to leave their training camp due to a lack of passports. If organisation off the pitch affects what happens on it, it does not bode well for the coming weeks.

Even if India lost a few more stars due to administrative oversights, they would still expect to defeat Pakistan in the opening game. The two are not exactly the rivals you would expect on the football pitch. The Green Shirts have never progressed past the semi-final stage. It could be tenth time lucky but with just three wins from the last 14 games -- coming against Macau and Nepal twice -- it is not very likely.

In August, the secretary of the Pakistan Football Federation Ahmed Yar Khan Lodhi told Serbian coach Zavisa Milosavljevic that it was time for the team to score more goals. "They ought to take my words as a warning. I'm not satisfied with the national team at the moment," said Lodhi.

An emotional warm-up game against Afghanistan last week was always going to be tough, as, if for nothing else, it was the first match held in Kabul for a decade. A 3-0 loss was a disappointment and Lodhi was as good as his word and after calling the defeat "pathetic", he showed Milosavljevic the door. His eventual replacement will be Mohammad Shamlan Mubarak Basheer Al Shamlan, 'donated' by Bahrain for a second spell free of charge, though Milosavljevic's former assistant Shehzad Anwar will take the reins in Nepal.

Hosts Nepal equalled their best ever performance in 2011 under former England international Graham Roberts - though another Spurs old boy Joe Kinnear never had the chance to try in his short spell in the country in 1987 - and reached the semi-finals. If the Gorkhalis are to get out of the group stage this time around, they will have to find a way to end a scoring drought. Apart from a six-goal thrashing of the Northern Mariana Islands, Nepal have yet to hit the target this year. Much depends on Anil Gurung, the striker who once had trials in England with Woking and Chelsea.

Bangladesh won the 2003 version and were finalists two years later. Dutch coach Lodewijk de Kruif has bemoaned his side's luck in being the fourth member of Group A, though there are hopes that a tough group can help lay the foundations for Bangladesh to reach the knockout stage in fine fettle.

De Kruif was right that Afghanistan got lucky being placed in Group B but perhaps Bangladesh will not be too sorry to avoid the Lions of Khorasan who are the biggest challenge to Indian hegemony and are the highest ranked of the eight by FIFA, at 139, six ahead of India. Afghanistan surprised many by reaching the final two years ago, losing to the hosts in New Delhi (with the referee providing a helping hand to the victors) but eyebrows will stay at normal elevation among the peaks of the Himalayas even if they the team goes a step further.

Football in the country has been obviously affected by the war that has been raging for much of this millennium but slowly things are improving. The Afghan Premier League is now entering a second year and providing professional football involving teams from all around the nation. The historic win over Pakistan last week in Kabul means that the Lions head to Kathmandu in high spirits especially with a group of overseas-based players with growing experience.

Maldives will also be expecting to reach the knockout stage. The islanders won the 2008 version, defeating India in the final to spark weeks of comments and comparisons about the relative size of populations. Ali Ashfaq is the star and vies with Chhetri for the title of South Asia's most feared striker. The Man of Steel has been linked with a number of European clubs but it never quite happened. It may be too late for that but he is still capable of troubling Asian defences.

Sri Lanka have won the 1995 tournament, although that is not quite as impressive as it sounds. There were only five teams in action and Sri Lanka, as hosts, played just three games, winning the first on a coin toss and the next two after extra-time. A three-week training camp in Thailand has served as preparation for the Nepali challenge. This competition is seen as the beginning of a new start in Sri Lankan football with Brazilian coach Claudio Roberto stressing the need for his men to learn how to play a possession-based game.

Last and, perhaps a little cruelly, least, are Bhutan. Being a mountainous landlocked country like the hosts will offer little advantage. It is a common problem in South Asia that national teams don't play enough games but Bhutan play less than most -- a reason why they are ranked just two places above the very bottom in the world by FIFA at 207 with only San Marino and Turks and Caicos Islands below. Even with Japanese coach Kazunori Ohara at the helm, finishing anything above fourth and bottom will be seen as success.

The same can't be said of some of the others who have their eyes on the big prize. Check-in at the airport can be as frustrating as arriving but it is a good deal more tolerable if you have the trophy with you.

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