By Alam Zeb Safi
Following a disappointing failure in the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers a couple of months back, Pakistan football team also failed to impress in the 2016 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Under-23 Championship qualifiers when it finished third in the four-team Group B slots held in Al-Ain (UAE) from May 16 to 20.
Pakistan began their journey with a huge 5-0 loss against Jordon with the Green-shirts completely failing to show any resistance.
It was followed by a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Kuwait. However, Pakistan salvaged some pride when they handed a 3-1 defeat to Kyrgyzstan in their third and last outing to finish at the third spot with three points.
Jordon, with seven points, moved into the next year’s tournament proper which will be hosted by Qatar in Doha.
The event was important because it also served as qualifiers for the 2016 Rio Olympics. In the presence of strong outfits such as Jordon and Kuwait, Pakistan team was not expected to achieve much but it should have given tough time to the gulf nations which are investing a lot in the game with a huge fan following.
Before leaving for UAE, Pakistan’s coach Mohammad Shamlan’s body language showed that he was not satisfied with the preparation of his Under-22 lot for the qualifiers which had twice been rescheduled because of various reasons.
Just hours before flying for UAE, Shamlan had told ‘The News on Sunday’ that he had been facing an ‘odd situation’ for the first time in his career as a coach as he would be fielding his side in a tough event without giving it international exposure.
And when Pakistan faced humiliating 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Jordon in their opener, a senior official of Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) said that they had exhausted their kitty and it was not possible for them to give further exposure to the side.
The official also said Pakistan could have performed had the qualifiers been held in Lahore.
Initially, Pakistan was set to host the qualifiers at Lahore from March 23 to 31 but these were postponed and later Asian Football Confederation (AFC) opted to stage it at UAE following a suicide attack on churches in Lahore on March 15 which had also forced FIFA to shift Pakistan’s second leg tie of the World Cup qualifiers against Yemen from Lahore to Manama.
Turkmenistan’s withdrawal then reduced the group competition to a four-nation affair. But these are all excuses. Pakistan should have been ready for every kind of situation. It was beyond the control of Shamlan to handle both senior and under-22 teams for the World Cup and the subsequent Olympic qualifiers. In this situation if you focus on one, the other will suffer. Around nine players of the under-22 side were also part of the senior side that appeared in the World Cup qualifiers, but it creates problems when you induct 11 more juniors to the pool of those who have already got exposure because of being part of the senior side. When a few months ago I was discussing the issue of handling two teams at the same time with Shamlan at a hotel in Karachi, he was looking uneasy because according to him it was a real challenge for him to handle both the outfits at the same time.
He seemed more interested in under-22 side. Following the Philippines’ Peace Cup in late 2013 where Pakistan’s senior team finished third in the three-nation event in Manila, Shamlan had shifted his focus towards preparation of under-22 players. But due to a break in its preparation at a time when training mattered the most Shamlan had to face the disappointment in Al-Ain.
Ironically, while focusing initially on the under-22 Pakistan also lost the opportunity to get a direct spot in the second round of the World Cup qualifiers. Had Pakistan focused on giving exposure to its senior side since Shamlan took charge in 2013, their world ranking could have been improved and they could have found a spot in the second round of the World Cup qualifiers.
You will face set-backs when you don’t have a plan.
It is not known how much they could have been effective for Pakistan but at least the authorities should have managed induction of England-based midfielder Otis Khan and Germany-based winger Sami Malik who were interested in showcasing their talent. The duo could have made it to both senior and under-22 sides because of the type of players they are and the environment they play in.
SAFF Cup is awaiting the senior side in India this year. But it is not known who will be in charge of Pakistan football by then both in terms of coaching and administration.
Shamlan’s future as Pakistan’s coach is uncertain. The Al-Ain event might be the last assignment for the former Bahraini defender because he is willing to quit as Pakistan’s coach when his two-year contract expires this July.
A few days ago he told ‘The News on Sunday’ that his heart did not want to quit as Pakistan’s coach. But his remarks that a professional coach needed facilities in terms of money, exposure to his team, strong football system to back his side show that he wants to quit as Pakistan’s coach.
It is also not yet known who will take control of the PFF as elections are to be held on June 30. A long-serving member of the PFF Congress and former Khyber Pakhtunkhwa health minister Syed Zahir Ali Shah is getting ready to contest the election for the PFF presidency against incumbent Faisal Saleh Hayat who has been at the helm of affairs for the last 12 years.
Irrespective of the outcome of the PFF election, the new set-up will have to take drastic steps if football in the country is to be improved. Pakistan stand 19th in the world in terms of available nursery and need a major push in game development.
PFF might get some good results with its short-term plan for its national side in future, but for putting football on the right path, a professional league is indispensable.
It would be a tough job but if the authorities want it can be made possible. In India too there were fears how Indian Super League (ISL) will succeed in a cricket-mad country. But All India Football Federation (AIFF) took the risk and the first edition last year surprised everyone as its viewership crossed the 410 million mark. IPL’s viewership is 560 million.
But only a sincere leadership would make it possible. It’s high time to come up with a long-term, vigorous and sustained plan to put football on the right path.