India won their second-straight and ninth SAFF title. Sunil Chhetri tied Ali Ashfaq’s all-time record of 23 goals in the tournament and scored his 92nd international goal. Naorem Mahesh Singh scored his first international goal. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu won two penalty shootouts. Mahesh Gawli won the tournament as both a player and a coach. This is India’s third piece of silverware this year.
Even though Igor Stimac’s team needed penalties to beat Kuwait, there is a lot of hope for the national team right now. What we learned from a great SAFF Championship is:
This SAFF victory might be India’s best one ever.
Since the SAFF Championships started in 1993, India has won nine of the fourteen tournaments. It’s not always a sure thing. The loss to Maldives in 2018 is still fresh in people’s minds. Because Kuwait and Lebanon were there, this might have been the best SAFF Championships field ever, and if not for the penalty shootout, there would have been no SAFF teams in the final. The fact that India only played two SAFF teams in their five games (Nepal and Pakistan) and still won is a credit to the team.
Mahesh Gawli, India’s assistant coach, won the title twice as a player, in 2005 and 2011. He also remembers the nightmare final of 2008, when Maldives scored in the 87th minute to win 1-0. Gawli did say that this win was a step up, so it’s possible that it helped get rid of those demons.
Sunil Chhetri’s last trophy-lift?
Even though the banner says “I’m not going anywhere,” everything Chhetri has done in the last year has a sense of closure. This was likely his last SAFF Championship, and he might have used it as a chance to pass Ali Ashfaq as the tournament’s top scorer. Most people think that India’s talismanic veteran will end his international career after the AFC Asian Cup in 2024. This means that he will probably only be able to win the King’s Cup or the Merdeka event. Iraq and Lebanon’s participation in these two tournaments should cause worry, and it’s possible that this is the last time Chhetri will win a trophy for India.
Which made it even more annoying that there were “dignitaries” on the stage with Chhetri when he lifted the prize. Please take the picture with you and go. It happens a lot in Indian sports, and it would be best to honor the real stars as soon as possible.
India should keep looking for new places to hold events.
Traffic advisories happen a lot in Bengaluru, but not so much in Indian football. Yet, on TUESDAY night, 26,380 people braved the city’s evening traffic, made their way into a packed Kanteerava, and screamed their hearts out for India. They made new memories and maybe even some new fans. Live sports is the best, especially if you want to cheer for your country.
The AIFF should get some credit for sending the national team to places like Imphal, Odisha, and Bengaluru instead of the usual sites. It might be a good idea to try out more host towns and really make the national team national. Like Bengaluru, other places might be a surprise, especially when India finally has a team that can bring people out.
Igor Stimac wants something that can’t be done, but the AIFF should make it possible.
“December is the most important time for the Indian national team to get ready for the Asian Cup. We’d like to have at least four weeks to get ready for that.”
When asked if these event wins were enough to prepare for the AFC Asian Cup in January 2024, Igor Stimac didn’t hold back. Having a four-week national camp is almost laughable while the Indian Super League season is going on, especially when money is at stake. No one else in charge of a foreign team would even think about making such a request. Yet, as Sandesh Jhingan said at a press conference before the final, India’s best performances in recent years (the tie with Qatar in the World Cup 2022 qualifiers, the wins over Afghanistan, Cambodia, and Hong Kong in the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers, and the two trophies now) have come after long camps, when players from different clubs can get in tune with each other.
Interfering with a club football calendar seems like a bad idea, but maybe the clubs can choose to think about the long run. Getting out of a tough Asian Cup group could be a turning point for Indian football, and the result could be good for the clubs themselves. More fans, more eyes, and more legendary nights to talk about, and the clubs have the players who just became stars. India probably won’t make it to the next World Cup, so the Asian Cup is the best chance for the national team to do well in a long time. Every year, someone will win the ISL, but this (partial) chance at success in the AFC Asian Cup won’t happen for a long time. If there’s a time to go through some short-term pain for long-term gain, it’s December.
India’s ranking will be affected by how well Sunil Chhetri and the rest of the team do in these two events, which are both taking place during FIFA international windows. India’s team played well in the SAFF Championships. Their defense stayed strong even though their lineup was always changing, Gurpreet saved almost every penalty, the free-flowing football led to tap-ins for Lallianzuala Chhangte and Chhetri, Ashique Kuruniyan led a high-press that could stop better teams than Kuwait in the future, and Jeakson Singh and Mahesh Singh added to their growing reputations.
It’s important to remember that Apuia, Manvir Singh, Bipin Singh, Sivasakthi Narayanan, Roshan Singh, and Asish Rai were all out because of injuries, but they might be back for the King’s Cup in September. Still, it’s not clear if Stimac will try to change the teamwork and fighting spirit that this group has shown over the past month. After all, not many Indian teams from the past can say that they brought the whole country together like this. Palestine, Thailand, Lebanon, Malaysia, and even Iraq should be careful, because the Blue Tigers are looking for new animals to eat.