Nepal’s national football team, the Gorkhalis, will begin their SAFF Championship 2023 campaign against Kuwait on Wednesday in Bangalore. The team’s Italian coach, Vincenzo Alberto Annese, will be put to the test as Nepal faces tough competition in Group A, which includes defending champions India and arch-rivals Pakistan.
Ranked 101st in men’s FIFA rankings, India will launch their bid for a record-extending ninth SAFF crown against Pakistan later at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium. Kuwait, ranked 143rd, is making a guest appearance in the biennial competition. Lebanon, another guest team, is in Group B alongside Bangladesh, Bhutan, and the Maldives.
Nepal reached their first and only SAFF final in Maldives in October 2021. However, the inclusion of Asian Cup playing nation Lebanon, ranked 99th, has made Nepal less of a favorite this time. One of the grave concerns of the Gorkhalis has been the mass exodus of footballers to foreign countries.
Since Annese’s appointment in March this year, the build-up to the India SAFF Championship has been surrounded by the immigration of top national players. These include Sumar Aryal, Tej Tamang, Dinesh Rajbanshi, Sujal Shrestha, Ranjit Dhimal, Gautam Shrestha, Bishal Rai, Sunil Bal, and Santosh Tamang, all of whom were part of Nepal national team’s historic march in the last edition.
Annese was appointed at the dawn of the ‘A’ Division League and had a four-month window to pick up fresh faces for the national side. More than a dozen players will be shouldering their SAFF duty carrying less than five caps.
Nepal also had a very short time to prepare for the competition due to the Martyrs Memorial ‘A’ Division League that concluded only ten days ago. “We had very little time to prepare for the tournament,” Annese told a pre-match conference on Tuesday. “I am getting connected with my players day by day. I need to get international experience as a coach and as well as from the new generation of Nepal national team.”
The 38-year-old Italian, whose only national coaching role previous to Nepal came with Belize, led Nepal to the Three Nations Cup trophy at the Dasharath Stadium only weeks after taking the job. But the Cup involved less fancied sides in Bhutan and Laos, and Anesse had come to the spotlight after Nepal failed to beat Bhutan for the first time in their history, serving as a testimony of Nepal football team’s sharp decline in the last two years.
However, Annese will have a chance to change that. “We are facing India, Kuwait, and Pakistan. It will be very difficult, but we are ready to face strong opponents…and hope to put up a better performance,” Annese added. Nepal and Kuwait have faced each other on nine occasions, with Kuwait winning eight of them, while one match ended in a draw.
Hosts India, the only other participating team to have qualified for the Asian Cup 2023, will be the favorites again but could face a stronger challenge this time.