As Bangladesh take on Bhutan in the opening match of the men’s football event of the 13th South Asian Games in Kathmandu today, the plans and ambitions in the tournament took a backseat, overtaken by controversy surrounding very hectic scheduling of the event.
The schedule was altered at the eleventh hour following India’s pull-out, with organisers turning this into a round-robin format event of five teams.
While the other teams might have heaved a sigh of relief to see the regional powerhouse not taking part, some of the coaches and players voiced their anger over the tight scheduling which will see each team play four matches in six days during the round-robin stage.
At the pre-tournament press conference at the Dasarath Rangasala yesterday, Maldives coach Petar Segrt was the most vocal about the ridiculosity of the new schedule as he felt his team were the hardest hit while ‘certain other teams’ were in an advantageous position.
“It is ridiculous that a team did not come and they [organisers] changed the format. They should have kept the original schedule and given 3-0 wins to the other teams for the matches against India, which is the FIFA and AFC norm,” the German said.
“I cannot risk the health of my players. In the absence of India and in case we opt out, it is easy to see which teams will go to the final. It is clear who wants to be champions,” said Segrt, whose charges will have to play matches on consecutive days twice unlike hosts Nepal and the other favourites Bangladesh, who will have to play matches on consecutive days only once.
Sri Lanka coach Paneer Ali, whose team are in a similar situation like Maldives, was equally vocal against the new schedule.
Bangladesh coach Jamie Day, who was more concerned about today’s game against Bhutan, was no less forgiving in his assessment of the situation.
“It’s a schedule I have never seen before and I hope I will never see in future. It’s a ridiculous set of games in a short space of time for players’ welfare. I don’t agree with it. I think it’s wrong but we have to get on with that,” Day said, adding that the players’ welfare was of most importance to him while hinting that he might have to shuffle his playing eleven drastically in a bid to save legs and not risk injuries.
On the aspect of the challenge of facing Bhutan, whom Bangladesh beat comfortably twice in friendly matches in Dhaka recently, the coach was of the opinion that they will have to work hard to win.
“I think it was not easy games against Bhutan last month rather we played very well. May be that day the condition of the Dhaka pitch helped us more than Bhutan. It’s going to be a tough game tomorrow because they have a good chance to do well here because of the altitude,” Day said. “However, it’s about us and how we perform on the matchday. If we perform as well as we possibly can, we have good chance to do well in the competition.”
Bangladesh, the champions of the 1999 and 2010 editions, came to Nepal on November 27, without having any preparation camp at home and had issues with altitude and the cold in Kathmandu. But skipper Jamal Bhuiyan, one of the three senior players in the side along with defender Yeasin Khan and striker Nabib Newaz Jibon, was looking forward to a positive outcome.
“Hopefully we can do something good in this tournament. The schedule is a little bit tight but we have to live with that. The players are adopting to it. We have to adopt to play in this condition,” the 29-year-old midfielder said.
Following the opening match against Bhutan, which will kick off at 1:15pm (BST) today, Bangladesh will play against SAFF champions Maldives the following day. They will have a day’s rest before facing Sri Lanka and two more days’ rest ahead of the final group game against defending champions Nepal on November 8. The final will be held on December 10.