New Delhi: Drawn in Group A alongside Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Bhutan, five-time winners and holders India will kick off their campaign in the SAFF Cup with a match against Afghanistan on December 3.
Pakistan are in Group B along with last edition`s runners-up Maldives, Bangladesh and Nepal for the December 2-11 event. The matches will be held at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium here.
With the Sports Ministry keen to turn the multi-sport Jawaharlal Nehru stadium into a football hub, All India Football Federation (AIFF) general secretary Kushal Das said, “This (SAFF tournament) will be an important assignment to help develop the stadium into a football hub."
SAFF general secretary and former AIFF secretary Alberto Colaco felt they have made progress as far as the tournament was concerned.
"We have progressed a lot. We have the SAFF women`s championships, the under-16, the under-19. We have also introduced the under-13 event, which was held in August. Hope to have the under-19 and the club championships for SAFF regions next year," Colaco said.
Despite being ranked lower than nations like Bangladesh (141) and Nepal (144), the hosts (160) are expected to start the 10th edition of the premier tournament as favourites.
Sri Lanka are currently ranked 177 and Afghanistan are placed at 184, while in the other group Nepal are followed by Maldives at 162, Pakistan 173 and Bhutan 199.
India had last hosted the biennial tournament in Margao in 1999, and won it.
Divided into two groups, the top two teams from each group will advance to the semifinals, which will be held on December 9, two days before the summit clash.
India defeated Maldives, currently ranked 162, 3-1 in the tie-breaker in the final of the previous edition in Dhaka two years ago.
Meanwhile, in another development, the South Asian Football Federation today announced the renewal of its agreement with its exclusive partner World Sport Group (WSG), in a deal to run through 2017.
Singapore-based WSG, Asia`s leading sports marketing, media and event management company, has been the exclusive commercial partners of SAFF since 1996, when they established an agreement to market South Asian football`s marketing and television rights.
WSG group`s Ian Mathie, senior vice-president, Football, Asean, Australia and South Asia region, said compared to 1996 the interest in football has gone up.
"We looked at India`s participation in the Asian Cup and the (viewership) for the World Cup and there was a lot of interest. We need to tap that interest," Mathie said.
"In just over a decade and a half, football in South Asia has experienced tremendous growth both on and off the field. SAFF has a distinguished group of marketing and media partners, and a great event -- SAFF Championship -- which is widely watched and growing in popularity across the region," said Mathie.
SAFF president, Kazi Salahuddin, said the tie-up with WSG has strengthened their financial condition.
"Our partnership with World Sport Group has been instrumental in securing the financial stability that ensures our sport`s sustainable growth in the region over the long-term. Their commitment over the past 15 years has helped us establish the administrative foundation and infrastructure that is necessary for us to govern and develop the sport effectively," said Salahuddin.