Published in Jang by Alam Zeb Safi
The National Football Challenge Cup produced new champions in the shape of National Bank who had been struggling in spite of a huge investment by the authorities for the last several years.
In the final, they beat the 2011 and 2012 runners-up Karachi Electric Supply Company (KESC) 1-0 when striker Mohammad Asif struck in the 81st minute at the Dring Stadium in Bahawalpur last Sunday.
This was only the second major title for the bankers in their long football history. They had lifted their first major title also in Bahawalpur way back in 1993 when they had beaten Pakistan Steel in the final of the Pakistan Inter-Departmental Championship.
The credit goes to National Bank’s coach Nasir Ismail who did a fine job and silenced his critics. Nasir used to be blamed for his team’s ordinary performances. But the victory in the Challenge Cup turned out to be a historic event in Nasir’s life as a coach. It is expected to prolong his career as the coach of the bank.
In the event, played in very hot conditions, National Bank were the only team that brought improvement as the tournament went on which is a pre-requisite for a good team. National Bank’s sports chief and former Test spinner Iqbal Qasim must be very happy with his teams achievement.
After losing to Pakistan Air Force (PAF) in a game that was to decide the group winners, National Bank not only shocked the four-time defending champions Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) in the quarter-finals, but also defeated WAPDA in the semi-finals.
Skipper Abdul Aziz, the South Asian Games gold medalist, led the bankers by example and Pakistan team officials said he deserved to be invited for the SAFF Cup camp.
KESC, who had lost to KRL in the 2011 and 2012 finals, once again failed to kiss the crown, this time losing to a comparatively weaker team.
But they, too, deserve praise as they showed enormous consistency in their performance and played another final. That their skipper Mohammad Essa was not fully fit throughout the tournament was a very important factor in their being unable to clinch the cup.
The biggest disappointment was KRL’s ouster from the event at the hands of National Bank in the quarter-finals on penalties. KRL, who had entered the tournament after qualifying for the final round of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) President’s Cup in the Philippines, also suffered a shocking 1-2 defeat at the hands of the debutants Pak Afghan Clearing Agency (PACA) in the group stage.
It was the worst ever performance from KRL during the last five years since they have been transformed into a top unit after the induction of so many international stars.
Pakistan Air Force (PAF), who got the bronze medal, emerged as a strong side, putting all of their opponents in trouble.
They mostly had young players and their striker Mohammad Mujahid, who made his international debut against Nepal a few months ago, played an instrumental role in his team’s success story.
PAF coach and former international Mohammad Arshad also merits commendation as he has been doing a fine job and has transformed the outfit into a winning unit.
WAPDA, who lost to PAF 2-0 in the play-off for the third place, once again failed to impress. Although they had inducted a few new players, they failed to reach the top, which must be a cause for concern for their management.
Habib Bank Limited (HBL) and Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), who both failed to go beyond the league stage, will have to hire experienced players in order to raise their standard.
National Under-18 team, who lost to KESC in the quarter-final, impressed every one. They played like a unit and even defeated former two-time Premier League champions Army in the group stage.
This is the same batch which the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) wants to see in the 2022 World Cup, a dream which is not likely to be fulfilled because of the way they treated the young boys.
The PFF had lodged the Under-18 team in a hostel which had no facilities. According to sources the colts were seen fetching water for themselves from the nearby guest house and also had to prepare meals in the absence of a cook.
Besides, the team played without a physiotherapist. Ironically, the PFF sends its physiotherapist Dr Kamran Mehdi with national teams on every foreign tour, but it has never asked him to look after the national team at domestic competitions.
Due to unscheduled heavy load-shedding the Under-18 players could not sleep at night. The PFF should not have fielded the team in the tournament if it was no ready to facilitate its future stars. This team, coached by Sajjad Mehmood, had defeated India in the final of the Under-16 SAFF Cup in Nepal in 2011.
The Bahawalpur Football Association miserably failed to organise the Challenge Cup in a betting manner. Initially, the event was being played at two venues, but the Ground No 2 was discarded after it hosted a couple of matches. Although the organisers claimed that the matches had been shifted due to the presence of honey bees at the Ground No 2 which could have disturbed the matches, sources said that the venue was dropped because of lack of the required facilities.
Every match played under floodlights was disturbed by the repeated suspension of the electricity. The organisers had managed a couple of power generators but they failed to overcome the problem. Most of the teams had to face trouble due to intermittent suspension of lights which used to break the tempo of the players.
Before organising the tournament the PFF had issued letters for inviting bidders and had instructed that the organisers would have to bear the expenses amounting to Rs600,000, while the rest of the expenses of the tournament amounting to Rs1,800,000 would be met by the PFF. But no one, particularly in Karachi, was ready to host the event which shows the weakening of the relationship of the PFF with the corporate sector and organisers.
The PFF must regain confidence of the corporate sector and the organisers which is very important for the promotion of football in the country.
The Challenge Cup should not have been conducted in such a hot weather as the players could not extend their best with the mercury touching the 47 degree Celsius mark on some occasions.
Karachi would have been a better choice as the weather at night here was much better than Punjab and the duration of load-shedding was also less than the rest of the country.
Abbottabad or Peshawar could also have proved better choices. Pakistan’s Serbian coach Zavisa Milosavljevic also watched the slots. He was seen busy picking probabales for Pakistan’s team which will be featuring in the SAFF Cup in Nepal from September 1-11.
Moreover, the PFF Technical Study (TSG) Group also picked Under-23 players. According to sources 40 junior players have been shortlisted for future assignments.
As per complaints of the officials of the participating teams the performance of the referees was once again below par. It is an area on which the PFF should focus, particularly ahead of the Premier League. The authorities must devise a plan so that the referees could not be influenced and that they could work freely.