By Gauhar Mahmood Azeem, FPDC Editor
When the draw for the first two rounds for the World Cup 2014 was made by the AFC on the 30th of March 2011, many Pakistanis were satisfied with having Bangladesh and Lebanon in round 1 and 2 respectively. Two teams with FIFA ranking below 160 was the easiest possible route to round 3, where the big Asian countries begin their journey. Thus nobody could’ve expected or predicted the dismal performance we showed during the first round game against Bangladesh, being outclassed 3-0 on aggregate.
Before the tie the Bangladeshi camp was in a mess. Coach Robert Rubic refused to travel to Pakistan and left Bangladesh unannounced before their camp started. The next coach Gjore Jovanovski also resigned within three days refusing to travel to Pakistan. The coach who stayed on for the tie, Nikola Ilievski, only joined the team just three days before the Dhaka leg, hardly ideal preparation for the fixture against Pakistan. The Bangladeshi media was also sceptic about their team’s chances against a physically superior and strong Pakistani side against whom they haven’t done well during the last few meetings.
Pakistan began their own preparations for the tie one month in advance of the 29th June first tie. Ten days in Lahore were followed by around twenty in Islamabad as a planned preparatory trip of the Middle-East was cancelled because of Muhammad Bin Hammam leaving FIFA on corruption charges. PFF tried to arrange a quick trip to Nepal but their outrageous demand to play 3 friendly games with the Nepali national side was too much for the Nepal Football Federation to agree to and they politely refused the request. It should be mentioned that footballpakistan.com had here brokered an agreement with Nepal football federation that guaranteed one preparatory game for the side.
Pakistan Head Coach Tariq Lutfi announced the 20 man squad for the tie on 24th June and that is when the problems started. The surprise re-inclusion of Jaffar Khan, after his dismal performance in the Asian Games last year, by the Coach was accompanied by making him captain even though he had previously retired mid-way during the SAFF Championship in Dhaka, 2009, destroying team morale while doing so. The naming of 19 year old Faisal Iqbal as his deputy was a matter of great tension in the national team camp. Faisal Iqbal who plays for Pakistan Assistant Coach Nasir Ismael’s NBP side domestically is a new comer to the international football arena and had only played 7 international games previously, his selection must have shocked striker Muhammad Arif and Ex-Captain Samar Ishaq Jaan both of whom have played over 20 games each internationally. The coach’s decision to exclude KRL winger Rizwan Asif was questioned by football analysts of Pakistan as he has been putting in exceptional performances over the past year for the national team.
Then came the 29th of June, the day of the first leg. It had been raining cats and dogs in Dhaka for 3 continuous days. Thus the condition of the pitch was more suitable for a Kabaddi match than one of football. Our team management failed to locate the FIFA commissioner before the game and couldn’t lodge an early formal complaint against the conditions which led to the game going ahead as planned. Our coaches have constantly blamed the Dhaka conditions for the 3-0 loss we suffered there but for someone who had followed the game there closely that was not the only case.
Tariq Lutfi chose to play to his weakness. He preferred to play two attack minded, physically weak players in KaleemUllah and debutant Hussnain on the wings. The attributes of these players include speed and dribbling with the ball, both of which were nullified by the water-logged conditions. A better choice would’ve been to play physically stronger players in Muhammad Ahmed and Ahmed Akbar in the mid-field to tighten the game and get back possession of the ball from the Bangladeshi’s, an ability severely lacking during the game. Atif Bashir was the sole defensive mid-fielder in the 4-1-3-2 formation we employed during the game, and no matter how hard he tried, in the present conditions he couldn’t alone stop the Bangladeshi drive through the mid-field. A quick review of the goals also shows us that Captain Jaffar Khan should’ve easily saved 2 out of the 3 goals and failed to act quality custodian to the Pakistani net. End result was a shameful 3-0 drubbing, the likes of which was unimaginable as 3 years back the Bangladeshi’s playing at the same venue couldn’t get a shot on target against our side.
Thus the tie was virtually over heading into the Lahore tie on the 3rd of July. The fans that had been waiting for months to see this World Cup Qualifier still showed up in record numbers to show their support for their side, an estimate puts them close to 6,000 enthusiasts. But the hope that the team would find 4 goals to defeat Bangladesh was present in a very few as the National Team had only scored 4 goals in the last 7 games playing under the defence minded Tariq Lutfi.
Pakistan team during the game badly failed to impress. Long ball game was employed by the team but wasn’t executed properly. Muhammad Rasool and Muhammad Arif played as strikers but the balls played to them either found the Bangladeshi centre-back’ heads or were played too long or wide. Bangladesh Goal-Keeper captain Biplob Bhattacharaje didn’t have a single shot to save during the whole game and his side could’ve even won if a couple of counter attacks weren’t wasted by their strikers.
While the debate on the inclusion of foreign based stars should be settled by a man of the match performance by Barry Town’s Atif Bashir and a great game by England based Adnan Ahmed, the selection of a few players was still appalling. Youngster Hussnain was as anonymous as in the first leg, while coach’s favourite KaleemUllah who came on in the first half in place of Qasim again failed to impress after close to a dozen poor performances without a single goal in a Pakistani shirt.
This poor performance has led to Pakistan being knocked out of the World Cup 2014 qualifiers at the very first hurdle. This year we were also knocked-out of the Olympic 2012 qualifiers in round 1. Pakistan also failed to qualify to AFC Challenge Cup final round even though having an easy group in that competition too. The present management has failed to show any signs of improvement and if anything the football in Pakistan has hit a new low. Tariq Lutfi’s statement that sacking him wouldn’t change anything is unjustified. A foreign coach would’ve had better tactics going into the game, trained the players better, selected better players, and saved us from such embarrassment. Maybe a foreign coach would’ve resigned from his job too after such a dismal show.
The PFF cites a lack of funds for having a local coach on-board, even though Belgian coach Tom Saintfeit offered to coach the National team free for 3 months a month before the Bangladesh game. The offer received no reply from the PFF. While the silence after this disaster shows the attitude and the concern of the football management towards the game in Pakistan, one can only request PFF President, AFC Executive committee manager and Federal Minister Housing and Works, Makhdoom Faisal Saleh Hayat to have some mercy upon the popular game of football. It is time for a change.
The only good thing to come out of this disaster is the football federation proving once again, after the Palestine and Malaysia games, that if properly arranged international sports in Pakistan are not only possible, they have been arranged multiple times since the Liberty round-about incidence of 2009!