By Nilanjan Datta,
AIFF Media Team
MALE, MALDIVES: Push the team bus to the background, and board the speed boat – the sole mode of commute from the mainland to the team hotel. Welcome to Maldives, the venue for the SAFF Championship which kicks off in the island nation from October 1 onwards.
The ride through the pristine waters of the Indian Ocean took almost 40 minutes, causing a bit of discomfort to the Blue Tigers – most (rather all) of whom are not quite accustomed to travelling over the ocean on a regular basis.
That, however, doesn’t dampen the spirit of the squad, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu expressed, “It feels great to be back in Maldives. The weather is good right now and hopefully, we will make the nation proud, and give them something to cheer about.”
“We are ready and the boys have been playing some football which is good. We hope to carry the momentum into the Championship and reach the finals,” he continued. India begin their campaign against Bangladesh on Monday, October 4.
The team hotel appears like the UN Capital with people from various nationalities enjoying their vacation in this secluded island within the island nation and within a bubble. The serene country was one of the first holiday destinations which had opened their doors to the world during the pandemic, with an exceptionally low percentage of positive cases in the country.
“It’s so nice to see families out on a holiday while adhering to all the health parameters. That’s something which has been quite unheard of since the last 19 months, That’s the normalcy which we all aspire to get back to -- the earlier the better,” quipped Anirudh Thapa.
“But we are not on a vacation. We have a task at hand, and it’s a tough one. Football is what we are here for. For us, the vacation can wait,” Thapa explained.
The contingent had undergone an RTPCR test prior to arrival in the Maldives, and as per the tournament guidelines also went through another RTPCR test upon arrival at the hotel.
The first practice session is at the Football Association of Maldives artificial training pitch, and the contingent travels back to Male – the capital city, a to-and-fro cruise on the speedboat piercing through the Indian Ocean once again. “The boat rides will be a common feature for us in the next two weeks,” smiled Rahul Bheke at the morning screening session.
“This is my first SAFF Championship, and I want to make it a memorable one. The quality in our side is unmistakable. We have played seven International matches since March, and looking back, we ask ourselves as to how many teams have played that much during the pandemic. We are here to make our mark, and I will prefer to take it day by day,” he uttered.