Although the SAFF Men's Football Championship has always been a major attraction for football lovers in South Asia, the women's edition of the tournament is yet to reach that level of excitement. Nevertheless, the 5th SAFF Women's Championship is all set to get underway at the Sahid Rangashala in Biratnagar, Nepal today.
Nepal will take on Bhutan in the Group A opener while Bangladesh will begin their campaign when they square off against Bhutan on March 14.
Even though women's football has been played in the South Asian region for quite some time, there are rational reasons behind its unpopularity. The standard to which most South Asian teams measure themselves to is mostly confined in the region while other Asian countries like Japan, Korea, China and Australia go on to participate in the Women's World Cup regularly.
However, unlike the case in men's football, women's leagues have not been regularly held in South Asia but women's football has gradually taken shape following FIFA's insistence.
Among the South Asian nations, India rank on top followed by Nepal. India clinched all four of the previous SAFF Women's Championship titles, leaving Nepal to finish second in the first three editions.
Bangladesh has however made their presence known to India and Nepal following the discovery of some promising players, who delivered the runners-up trophy of the last edition after some success at age-group tournaments.
The women in red and green now dream of playing back to back finals but hosts Nepal and India will definitely be standing in their way. India is once again the top favourite to win the six-team tournament, especially since they have played 11 international matches since January. India won six out of those 11 outings, which were played in the Hero Gold Cup in Odisha, a three-nation tournament which featured Hong Kong and Indonesia. They then participated in a tournament in Turkey, where they took on Turkmenistan, Romania, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
Before those matches abroad, a youthful India side became one of the group champions of the Olympic Qualifiers to advance to the second round for the first time ever. All these achievements will certainly be a boost to the charges Maymol Rocky, who will look to take their fifth straight SAFF Women's Championship title.
Nepal may not have had as much practice as India but the Himalayan nation could draw inspiration from the Hero Gold Cup, where they outplayed hosts India to reach the final. Nepal beat India 2-1 in the group stages before going on to suffer a 1-3 defeat to eventual champions Myanmar in the final.
Nepal also had a more or less good campaign in the Olympic Qualifiers, holding the mighty Myanmar, India and Bangladesh to identical 1-1 draws, courtesy of forwards Niru Thapa and Sabitra Bhandari. The charges of Hari Khadka are now dreaming of their first taste of the championship title.
Therefore, reaching the final will be an uphill task for Bangladesh, who must put Nepal behind to emerge as Group A champions if they hope to avoid India, the expectant Group B champions, in the semifinals. Bangladesh have never beaten their Indian counterparts but did hold them to a 1-1 draw once in the last edition.
Bangladesh were made to depart from the tournament twice from the semifinal stage as they lost to Nepal in the first and third editions. The women in red and green won seven while losing just as many and drawing one in the 15 matches they have played in the SAFF Women's Championship so far.
However, the main advantage for Bangladesh is that they know each other quite since they have played together for the last two-and-a-half years. They also delivered some scintillating performances at age-level competitions and will surely be hoping to recreate that form to stun India and Nepal.