SAFF Championship 2021

Maldives looks to win its first match against second place Bangladesh.

Source: Presidencymv

Source: Presidencymv

On 7 October, the Maldives will take on Bangladesh in a must-win match for it in the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship 2021, at the National Football Stadium, in Malé, Maldives, on Thursday at 9 pm local time. And before the match even kicks off, the game is getting heated.  

This is the 13th time the tournament is being held since SAFF was established in 1993. The Maldives is hosting it for the first time, although it co-hosted the championship with Sri Lanka on 2008. According to sports analyst Abdulla Azmeen, the tournament, taking place from 1 to 16 October, is considered "the region's world cup and is taken very seriously," by the seven South Asian countries - Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bhutan, that take part in it. 

However, two countries are not able to take part this time, namely Pakistan and Bhutan. Pakistan is unable to take part since it was suspended by FIFA for violation of its statutes for third party meddling, while Bhutan is not participating owing to travel restrictions put in place by their government, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Afghanistan, which had won the 2013 championship, had also been a part of SAFF. However, it joined the Central Asian Football Federation (CAFA), in 2015. Given that only five teams are participating this year, the top two teams in the league will play in the final, after a round-robin stage. This is the first time the tournament is being played in this format. 

As the host, and the defending Champions from 2019, the Maldivian team is under huge pressure, especially after losing their opening game against current league leader, Nepal, 1 to 0. The Maldivian team had played and controlled the game well, but without a cutting edge in the final third, the team lost the match to an 86th minute counter-attack goal by a second-half substitute from the Nepali team, Manish Dangi. This was the first time the Maldives has lost to Nepal in the SAFF Championship. The Maldives, even in the most recent encounter with the Nepali team in 2018, had secured a comfortable win by 3-0. The Maldives is one of the favourites, having won the competition twice.  

Many local football analysts have criticized the Maldives team's preparations for the tournament, especially since it has not played any international competitive match in preparation. After their training programs in Qatar, the team has played only two friendlies with clubs ranked lower. However, other teams, such as Nepal, which is currently topping the table comfortably with 6 points, has played competitive games against better placed teams such as Oman. According to their head coach Abdullah al-Mutairi, even though the team had lost to Oman 7-2, this was one of the reasons their team has improved in time for the competition. He has said that ‘teams must not be afraid to lose after playing a better team, since such matches would help the team to learn from their mistakes.'

The decisions by the Maldivian team's head coach in team selection has also been scrutinized for including a current political appointee, Asad Ali (Adey), in the team, who's last match for the national team had been back in 2018, and because he had not played even five games with his club during the last season. He is also under the spotlight after acting as a ‘guarantor’ for the return of former Minister of Tourism Ali Waheed, who stands accused of sexual harassment. Waheed, whose return to the Maldives was guaranteed by Adey, had failed to return to the Maldives at the end of his court-approved medical leave.

However, head coach Ali Suzain, after evading the questions by reporters as to why Asad Ali has been included in the team, then questioned the media's intentions in asking the question. He has further said that there will be no major changes to the team that lost to Nepal as he believes the team played well and created many chances, although it had failed to score a goal. He added that he was confident mistakes that had been made in the last match had been rectified during the team's last practice session. 

Meanwhile, Bangladesh, who has won the tournament only once in 2013, sits at second place after defeating Sri Lanka 1-0 and getting a hard-fought draw against the tournament favorite India, which has won this competition seven times. As such, Bangladesh is very eager to win their first final since 2005. Bangladesh had last won against the Maldives in a SAFF companionship in 2003, but since then, the Maldives had won, both in 2011 and 2015. In the most recent friendly match, the Maldives had won easily by 5-0 and the Bangladesh FA is determined to improve the results this time.

The appointment of the Spanish coach, Oscar Bruzon, who had worked in Maldives between 2017 to 2018 as an interim coach, just prior to this competition, in September 2021, also highlights the importance given to improve the results. This was after the previous coach endured a seven-game winless run. In addition, Bangladesh FA has said the appointment of Bruzon was targeted specifically for the SAFF championship, since he has extensive knowledge and experience of football, both in Bangladesh and the region. Before taking over, Bruzon had coached Bangladesh Bashundhara Kings, and helped them to win all the domestic tournaments and to qualify to play the AFC Cup. As such, Bangladesh team and supporters are full of confidence, with a good start to the tournament.

However, there has been major unhappiness and concerns raised by over 120,000 supporters (over 40 percent of total foreign workers in Maldives) of Bangladesh living in Maldives, when the Football Association of Maldives (FAM) restricted the number of tickets sold to Bangladeshi supporters to only 200. This is only 4 percent of the total 5,000 tickets sold, and is much less than the capacity of the grounds, due to COVID-19 protocols in place.

In addition, Transparency Maldives has also condemned a statement from the FAM, which stated that “tickets issued to Maldivians cannot be used by non-Maldivian to enter the stadium and that work permit or visa would be required to enter for the non-Maldivian." Transparency Maldives said that this amounted to 'discriminatory rules that target a specific nationality, mid-tournament, ahead of the Maldives-Bangladesh match.' Further, it said that "this is in clear violation of international sports ethics and is an unacceptable act" and to "establish a fair system for the ticket allocation."

According to FAM, they have acted as per best practices established by FIFA, which normally requires a minimum of 5 percent of tickets to be made available for visiting supporters, and that the home team is always given an advantage with more allocations being made. They further explained that the reason for the restriction of not allowing home team’s tickets and visiting team’s tickets to be sold to each other were done for two reasons. Firstly, to stop the black-market rates of tickets, which has gone up from MVR75-100 to MVR1500-2000, and since all tickets had been sold out within six hours, there had been many complaints of the tickets being traded further. Secondly, since both sets of supporters have been allocated a certain area in the stadium as per the rules, if both set of supporters get mixed, it may lead to tension and unrest among the supporters during the match, and as such, it had been done for the safety of all supporters. It must also be noted that, according to Human Rights Watch, out of the 63,000 illegal and undocumented foreign workers living in Maldives, the majority are men from Bangladesh who work in the construction and tourism industries, and the requirement of work permit or visa is an important to enforce immigration law.

Whatever, the situation is regarding the tickets and the stadium, this match and the matches that follow, are heating-up to be more exciting, as Maldives tries to defend its crown by winning the remaining three matches and reaching the final. In addition to Bangladesh, Maldives will also play Sri Lanka on 10 October and its last match against India on 13 October. Winning the match against Bangladesh on 7 October is a must, if there is to be any hope of reaching the finals.

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