SAFF Championship

SAFF Championship 2021 TOTT: Apuia, Bista highlight South Asia’s next generation

Sudesh BaniyaSudesh Baniya

October 18 2021
SAFF Championship
(Courtesy : AIFF Media, ANFA Media,

These players stood out for their respective national teams at the 2021 edition of the regional tournament.

Igor Stimac’s India overturned a scanty start to win their eighth SAFF Championship title, closing curtains to an exciting tournament in Male. Uncertainties, moments of brilliance, and drama from the pitch to the press conferences decorated the 13th edition of the biennial competition. India’s lack of preparation, Nepal’s sudden rise and Bangladesh and Maldives’ underperformance spiced up things further in the tournament.

In the midst of it all, the tournament got to witness regional talents come together for the first time after the 2018 edition in Bangladesh. After a three-year break and many changes in the setup, many players rose to the occasion in their national colours. Picking the very best performers among those, here’s Khel Now’s team of the tournament:

Goalkeeper – Gurpreet Singh Sandhu (India)

Gurpreet Singh Sandhu India Indian Football Team SAFF Championship 2021
The custodian registered three clean-sheets to his name at the SAFF Championship 2021

Although India kept their opponents on the backfoot with their attack throughout the tournament, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu was excellent as always. The team’s success was built from a solid performance at the back that started all the way from Sandhu. Keeping three clean sheets, the custodian conceded just two goals in five matches. As the most successful goalkeeper of the 2021 edition, the shot stopper maintained a solid presence despite having an ever-changing backline in front of him.

Right back – Pritam Kotal (India)

The only constant in India’s changing defensive combination in the tournament was Pritam Kotal. A right back by nature, he was called up to fill the space as a right-sided center-back. A useful player in Igor Stimac’s preferred philosophy of building from the back, Kotal also registered two assists at the tournament.

Centre-back – Duckson Puslas (Sri Lanka)

All eyes were on Sri Lanka’s two high-profile foreign players, yet it was Duckson Puslas who punched above his weight. The 31-year-old centre-back used his experience to be a solid presence at the back and excelled at an individual level. Although the Lankans were not as convincing as an unit, he stood out to make a mark of his own. Compensating for the lack of pace, Puslas’ positioning was the highlight of his performance.

Centre-back – Topu Barman (Bangladesh)

Topu Barman Bangladesh SAFF Championship 2021
Barman also scored the goal that helped his team beat Sri Lanka

Although the Bangladeshi side missed out on the tournament finals following a draw against Nepal, it will be fair to say their defense was the stand-out factor. Often defending in a low-block, the side did more work than the other departments against India and Nepal. At the heart of it all, was Topu Barman. The Bashundhara Kings centre-back was aggressive with his tackles, and caught opposition strikers with his challenges. Playing a metronomic role to organize Bruzon’s set-up, Barman was crucial in containing and dealing with aerial balls with his solid build.

Left-back – Yeasin Arafat (Bangladesh)

18-year-old Yeasin Arafat was a spark in the Bangladesh’s search for a spot in the finals. The Sais FC left-back was Oscar Bruzon’s go-to player in transitions as he glided from the wide to advance forward. In an impressive manner, the youngster got the equalizer against India, signifying the Greens’ courageous effort.

Right midfielder – Mohammad Yasir (India)

As a vertical and direct player operating from the wide, Yasir was the outlet that Stimac utilized to find Sunil Chhetri and Manvir Singh upfront. Against oppositions who preferred to let India have the ball following their lack of verticality with it, the winger was a useful weapon for the Blue Tigers. The 23-year-old also got an assist in his four appearances, contributing significantly to the triumphant campaign.

Central midfielder – Rohit Chand (Nepal)

As the only international superstar from the Nepali side, eyes were on Persija Jakarta’s Rohit Chand to run the show at Male. Broadly speaking, that was exactly what he did. Switching from his role as a centre-back to a midfielder in the final and the game before, he ran the show from midfield. A former Golden Ball winner at the Indonesian League, he was the balance that kept Nepal going on both attacking and defensive fronts.

SAFF Championship 2021 Team of the Tournament
SAFF Championship 2021 Team of the Tournament

Central midfielder – Apuia (India)

The brightest star from India’s young midfield was undoubtedly Apuia, who ran the show for the Blue Tigers. Putting an emphatic display against Maldives to steer India in the finals, the 21-year-old continued to impress with a prolific performance against Nepal. The midfielder’s campaign was a testament to many claims suggesting his future in Indian football, if he isn’t a vital part of the present already.

Left midfielder – Anjan Bista (Nepal)

Barely anyone has been as important as Anjan Bista in Abdullah Almutairi’s Nepali side. Making his ranks through the youth set-up, Bista displayed his experience albeit being just 23. His two goals were absolutely crucial for the Gorkhalis. One of them came in a winning cause against Sri Lanka and the other helped them qualify for the finals. Everything that Nepal did in the build-up went through him at some point. While Nepal would have liked to have him in the final, it didn’t happen due to a suspension.

Striker – Ali Ashfaq (Maldives)

Ali Ashfaq’s trait of scoring in the SAFF Championship did not stop. The 36-year-old scored three goals in front of the home crowd. Playing as the target man in Ali Suzain’s side, Ashfaq scored in the wins against Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The Maldivian campaign did not end as per expectations, yet Ashfaq’s potential last campaign was not a disappointment at the individual level for the prolific striker.

Striker – Sunil Chhetri (India)

Sunil Chhetri India Indian Football Team SAFF Championship 2021
Chhetri scored five goals and became the SAFF Championship 2021 top-scorer

The man who led India to glory. When India needed him the most, he stepped up to take them out of misery. Surplus to his goals, Sunil Chhetri was a force who carved India’s title win. With five goals in as many matches, the striker scored his 80th goal in international football, matching Lionel Messi’s numbers with Argentina.

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