On Tuesday evening, the Indian Men’s U-19 Team landed in Kathmandu, Nepal to take part in the SAFF U19 Championship. The mid-20s weather was a welcome change after 10 days of hustle in the heat of Saudi Arabia, where the boys, led by head coach Shuvendu Panda, had been training.
In a repeat of last year’s SAFF U20 Championship final, India will begin their Group B campaign with a clash against Bangladesh at the Dashrath Stadium at 13:15 IST. The match will be streamed live on the Sportzworkz YouTube Channel. Bhutan are the third and final side in the group, while Group A consists of hosts Nepal, Maldives and Pakistan. The top two sides from each group will progress to the semi-final.
The current batch of U19 boys, mostly consisting of 2005-born players, have been training together in Bhubaneswar since 2021, and will finally get the chance to make their competitive international debut at the South Asian tournament.
In Al-Ahsa last week, the Blue Colts played two friendly matches against U19 sides of local clubs Al-Nojoom FC and Al-Adalah FC, winning 2-0 and 3-1, respectively. “We have been practising for a long time, almost two years. Before arriving here in Nepal, we had a great tour of Saudi Arabia, where we played a couple of matches. The preparation has been very good,” said head coach Shuvendu Panda in the pre-tournament press conference on Wednesday.
Panda, on the eve of the India U19’s international debut, also extended his gratitude to the AIFF and Odisha government for their continued support throughout the past couple of years. “The support from the federation has been outstanding. I would like to thank the Odisha government for providing world-class facilities to our team during the entire duration.
“Most of our players are inexperienced. They have never played any international match. So, I would also like to thank the federation for providing such a wonderful exposure tour before participating in the SAFF Championship, a tournament we’ve been really looking forward to. I would like to wish all the best to all the teams,” he said.
Bhubaneswar’s Kalinga Stadium was also the venue of the 2022 SAFF U20 Championship final, where India ran out 5-2 winners over Bangladesh after extra time. With two of the tournament’s favourites meeting on the opening day, an exciting clash is definitely in store for tomorrow.
Opening up on his team’s preparations, Bangladesh head coach Rashed Ahmed said, “We have been preparing for the past four weeks. We’re in good shape. We arrived here yesterday. Our goal is to win the first match, qualify for the semi-finals and make it to the final. I hope the best team wins tomorrow. It’s going to be a great game.”
Despite the lack of international experience, India’s captain and midfielder Ishaan Shishodia, who hails from Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh, has every reason to believe the team can live up to their favourites tag and continue India’s glorious tradition at SAFF events.
“It feels amazing to be here. As the coach said, we’re just coming back from a great tour to Saudi Arabia. We played a couple of games there and won both. Our team feels confident and happy. India has been the most successful nation in every SAFF competition, and I’m sure we can also repeat the glory,” said Shishodia.