Indian football team have dominated SAFF Championship since first edition 30 years ago

Sunil Chhetri scored a hat-trick  and led the Indian football team to a comprehensive 4-0 win over Pakistan at the Sree Kanteerava stadium in Bengaluru to kick off their 2023 SAFF Championship campaign in style.

is also the second-highest goal-scorer at the SAFF Championship with 18 goals
Sunil Chhetri is the second-highest goal-scorer at the SAFF Championship with 18 goals. Photo courtesy: AIFF

The SAFF Championship is an international football tournament primarily contested by teams from the South Asian sub-continent. It is organised by the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF), one of the five sub-confederations under the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).

The Indian men’s football team has been a dominant force throughout the tournament’s 30-year history. Indian men have made it to all finals except in 2003. Of the 13 editions, India have won eight men’s SAFF Championship titles.

India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Maldives were the six founding members of SAFF in 1997. Bhutan joined SAFF in 2000, thereby increasing the number of member nations to seven. Afghanistan became a SAFF member in 2005 but moved to the Central Asian Football Association (CAFA) in 2015.

In the last edition in 2021, Nepal created history by making it to their first-ever SAFF Championship final. However, they lost to India in the summit clash. Sunil Chhetri, India’s leading goalscorer in international football, was the tournament’s top scorer. 

He is also the second-highest goal-scorer at the SAFF Championship with 18 goals. Maldivian legend Ali Ashfaq tops that list with 23.

The first edition of the football championship for South Asian countries was held in 1993, four years before the formation of SAFF. India won the inaugural edition played in Lahore, Pakistan. The SAFF Women’s Championship was introduced in 2010 in Bangladesh. The Indian women’s football team won the first title with a 1-0 victory over Nepal. Sasmita Mallik netted the winner.

The 1997 edition saw the deadly trio of IM Vijayan, Bhaichung Bhutia and Jo Paul Ancheri lead India’s attack. The Blue Tigers scored 12 goals in the tournament from four matches. Five came in the final against Maldives as India took home the trophy with a 5-1 win.

India won the tournament in 1999 as well. The next edition was held four years later, where hosts Bangladesh upset India in the semi-finals and went on to win the title on penalties against the Maldives. It was the only time India did not play in the SAFF final.

India bounced back to win the title in 2005, after defeating Bangladesh in the final held in Islamabad. 

The 2008 SAFF Championship was the first time the tournament was hosted jointly by two countries, Sri Lanka and Maldives. The Maldives were crowned champions that year.

The next three editions of the SAFF Championship saw a fierce rivalry between India and Afghanistan. The two teams played all the three finals. India won in 2011 and 2015 while Afghanistan emerged champions in 2013.

CtoI News Desk
CtoI News Desk – CtoI

Singapore-headquartered online media company targeting Indian Diaspora across Singapore, US, UK, UAE and India. Connected to India covers developments around NRIs. Covers arts, political, sports, finance, entrepreneurship, business, movies, dramas, entertainment and other news for Indians living worldwide.


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