Kathmandu: Defending champions India were on Tuesday handed a relatively easier draw for the South Asian Football Federation Championship which begins here from September 1.
India, the second highest ranked team at 146th, have been pooled in Group A alongside hosts and last edition semifinalists Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh in the biennial regional tournament.
Last edition runners-up and highest ranked team in the tournament, Afghanistan (140th), 2008 edition champions Maldives, Sri Lanka and Bhutan form the Group B in the September 1-11 event.
India, who have not played an international match for a long time, escaped from being clubbed either with Afghanistan or Maldives, two strong sides in the tournament.
Afghanistan had drawn with India 1-1 at the group stage in the 2011 edition in New Delhi though they lost in the final. Maldives are the fourth highest-ranked team at 154th.
India will open their campaign against neighbours Pakistan on September 1. They will clash with Bangladesh and Nepal on September 3 and 5 respectively.
Top two teams from each group will qualify for the semifinals to be played on September 8. The final is slated for September 11.
The winners of the tournament will get USD 50,000 while the runners-up with pocket USD 25,000. The two losing semifinalists will get USD 10,000 each.
The draw ceremony was conducted by Harish Krishnamachar, WSG senior Vice-President and Country head, and attended by All Nepal Football Association (ANFA) President Ganesh Thapa and SAFF President Kazi Mohammed Salahuddin.
India have just one international friendly to play, against Tajikistan on August 14 in Dushanbe, before the eight-team SAFF Championships, organised with the help of World Sports Group, a leading sports marketing and event management company.
AIFF (Director) National Teams Shubankar Mukherjee, however, said that it won`t be an easy road for India to retain the title.
"It`s a tough draw. You have three good teams in Group A. Ideally we should have played more (friendly) matches before this tournament. We wanted Tajikistan to play two games but they did not have time. What do you do? So after playing Tajikistan, we have national camp from August 16," Mukherjee said.
The last time India played an international friendly was five months back in February, when they lost 2-4 to Palestine in Kochi.
India`s international friendlies against Malaysia and Philippines were also cancelled as their scheduling clashed with the re-scheduled SAFF Championship.
Originally SAFF Cup was to be held from September 18 but due to the AFC commitments of India`s East Bengal and Maldives` New Radiant Sports Club, the organisers were forced to re-arrange the dates.
Last month, India`s tour of England, where they were to play a friendly series against Pakistan and Bangladesh, was also scrapped after the sponsors ditched the teams in the last moment.
We have sought a report from IOA on Sarita's case. Let them give a detailed report and we will take further steps.