The 13th edition of the SA Games kicked off yesterday with Bangladesh eyeing gold in multiple events such as Shooting, Cricket, Archery, and Weightlifting. But gold in one sport can weigh up more than the others combined - football.
The football team had a brief training camp in Kathmandu before the tournament and will play their first match today against Bhutan. After India's withdrawal, Bangladesh have emerged as the favourties. But whether they can live up to the billing that remains to be seen.
This year the expectations are high. The National team is going through a purple patch under Coach Jamie Day and played some eye-catching football in the world cup qualifiers. The Englishman will also be at the helm of the Under 23 team in Kathmandu. Main team stalwarts like Jamal Bhuiyan, Nabib Nawaz Jibon, and Mohammad Yeasin will be at the disposal.
National team captain Jamal is one of the three senior players allowed to play and also the skipper of the young side. The team has high aspirations and hoped to play in the final. Jamal hopes that the recent good results will inspire the team in Kathmandu.
"Our initial target is to reach the final. We can win the gold. Our team is similar to the national team. Last year we defeated Qatar to advance to the second round of the Asian Games. I think that will motivate us to perform better in SA Games", an optimistic Jamal said before leaving for Nepal.
The obsession with SA Games gold
Since its inception in 1984, SA Games football gold has been one of the ultimate challenges in Bangladesh football. In the 1980s and 1990s, this was the title, that Bangladesh football team wanted the most.
In the earlier days, SA Games (SAF Games back then) football proved to be a heartbreak for Bangladesh. Despite having the best squad in the region, the team failed to win the top prize from the first two editions. Especially, the defeat against India in penalty shoot-out is still considered as one of the most agonizing moments in the country's sporting history.
After toiling hard for 15 years, Bangladesh finally got hold of the SAF games football gold, in the 1999 edition in Kathmandu. By that time, another regional tournament title SAFF Championship was introduced. SA Games football was no longer the premier competition of the sport in the region.
Since 2004, the tournament has been converted into an Under-23 competition. In the last 15 years, Bangladesh have secured the gold only once in 2010, on home soil.
But for the purists and experts alike, the competition has not lost its significance. Footballing Legend and former Head Coach of the National Team Golam Sarwar Tipu told The Business Standard that the tournament now serves as a testing ground for the younger players.
"I do not think the importance has lessened after the inauguration of the SAF championship. This tournament (SA Games) can be a good testing ground for young players. Playing in this sort of tournaments helps a player in gathering experience and confidence." Tipu said.
Former Footballer and the current Head Coach of Bangladesh National Women's Football Team, Golam Rabbani Chhoton agrees with Tipu. The veteran trainer still feels, the SA Games football gold is worth fighting for.
"SA Games football has always been very important for the region. I think every team seeks Regional supremacy and winning the SA Games title helps a lot to establish that. All the teams prepare well for the tournament" he said.
Change in format
India withdrew from this year's tournament at the last moment. As a result, there was a re-scheduling of the matches and the group format was converted to a round-robin league one.
Bangladesh will play their first match against Bhutan on December 2 at the Dasarath Rangasala Stadium in Kathmandu. The next day they will take on the Maldives. Sri Lanka is the next opponent for the Red and Greens. Bangladesh will play the islanders on December 5. Their last match is against the hosts on December 8. The top two teams will play the final on December 10 at the same venue.
India's withdrawal certainly makes Bangladesh the favourites. Jamie Day's boys are in fine form after good showings at the Asian Cup qualifiers. But after a busy schedule for the Asian Cup and World Cup qualifiers, the booters did not get enough opportunity to train in their home soil. The team reached Nepal three days before the kick-off and had minimum time to prepare themselves. This could be a hindrance to their performance, according to Tipu.
"The rhythm won't be the same. The team should have trained and prepared more. But they have some experience in their ranks. So, I guess they can adjust.
"Absence of India certainly improves Bangladesh's chances. But you have to remember, it all depends on the day. Whoever plays the better football will win." added Tipu.
However, Chhoton believes the positive performances in the qualifiers will boost Bangladesh's chances.
"I hope the team does well. We have been playing well in the World Cup qualifiers. If we keep the momentum we can be the favourites in the tournament." said Chhoton.
Anisur Rahman, Pappu Hossain, Mahfuz Hasan Pritom, Yeasin Khan, Bishwanath Ghosh, Tutul Hosain Badsha, Rahmat Mia, Riyadul Hasan, Yeasin Arafat, Sushanto Tripura, Jamal Bhuiyan ©, Biplu Ahamed, Rabiul Hasan, Mahbubur Rahman, Md Al Amin, Nabib Newaz Jiban, Saad Uddin, Rakib Hossain, Arifur Rahman and Mohammad Ibrahim.