Two years ago the girls in red and green entered a new era after emerging as champions in one of four qualifier groups to advance into the final round of the AFC U-16 Championships. Now, they will have a new test in the same stage of the qualifying tournament, which gets underway at the Birshrestha Shaheed Mostafa Kamal Stadium in Kamalapur today.
In the tournament's new format there will be two phases of qualifiers, where 30 nations, split into six groups, will play Round-1. From there, six group champions and the two best runners-up will enter the eight-team Round-2 to be held next year. Finally, four teams from Round-2 will join last edition's champions North Korea, runners-up South Korea, third-finishers Japan and hosts Thailand in the tournament proper.
In 2016, Bangladesh emerged as group champions by defeating Chinese Taipei, Iran, UAE, Kyrgyzstan and Singapore. However, this time the hosts will have to contend with unknown rivals such as Vietnam, Lebanon and Bahrain in a tough Group F. UAE are the only familiar face in their group.
Like their Bangladeshi counterparts, the Vietnam and Lebanon women's teams have also been in round-the-year training. In addition, they have also been regularly playing in their U-16 and U-17 domestic women's leagues, a platform the Bangladeshi women are deprived of.
Despite knowing that fact and that most coaches of the participating teams believe all the teams are equal in strength, Bangladesh head coach Golam Rabbani Choton wants to take a step towards the final round by finishing as group champions.
His charges have been preparing for nearly a year and have played three tournaments -- the 2017 SAFF U-15 Championship last December, a four-nation tournament in Singapore in March and the 2018 SAFF U-15 Championship last month.
"We have been preparing since December and were champions in two tournaments before finishing second in the last SAFF U-15 Championship. The girls are ready to replicate their feats by displaying even better performances than what we showed in the final round in Thailand," Choton said at a pre-tournament briefing at the BFF House yesterday.
He also informed that the Bangladesh team would feature 12 players who played in the 2016 qualifiers while the rest would be comprised of those who have experience in international matches. Choton added that the current squad in believed to be stronger than the team that played in the 2016 qualifiers.
On the opening day, UAE will play against Vietnam at 11:30am before Lebanon face Bahrain at 3:30pm. Bangladesh will play their first match against Bahrain on Monday at 3:30pm.