By Shahrukh Sohail, Chief Editor, Islamabad
Although most fans will be looking back at 2013 and admiring the Confederations Cup, the emergence of Neymar and the latest vat of action from Europe, Pakistani football too had its share of highs and lows during the calendar year, it’s just that no one noticed.
Starting 2013, the Pak Shaheens had just been shattered by a resilient Singapore side at home and although the 4-0 defeat hurled a lot of criticism on the team, the game saw the debuts of Hassan Bashir (Fremad Amagar), Mohammad Ali (BK Avarta) and Yousuf Butt (BGA).
Hassan in particular endeared himself to the fans as he scored in his next game against Nepal and later provided an assist against the Gorkhalis in the 2nd game.
Two wins and Serbian manager Zavisa Milosavljević was a happy man as he departed Tribhuvan International Airport and landed in Male to face the formidable Maldives at home.
Skippered by Ali Ashfaq, the Reds scored and battered the Pakistani backline for almost the entire game but the Pak Shaheens never gave up.
Yaqoob Butt (Skoveshed) curled in a delightful corner in injury time and new recruit Hameed Khan (WAPDA) diverted the ball into the goal as Pakistan levelled things in injury time.
Buoyed by their performance, Zavisa’s troops went into in the next friendly with confidence but struggled to match Ali Ashfaq, who simply tore the Shaheens apart with his constant dribbling and bombarding runs.
But nonetheless, Pakistan’s ranking shot up to 170 from 189 in a matter of days.
After an exposure tour to Dubai, Pakistan landed in Kyrgyzstan for the AFC Challenge Cup Qualifiers and faced a tough task against Tajikistan, ranked almost 50 places above them.
However, the South Asians matched the Tajiks with all their might and goalkeeper Yousuf Butt kept out everything the opposition thrown at them. And with injury time approaching, it seemed for a moment that the Shaheens would pull off a major result.
But that’s where their luck ran out. KRL’s Yasir Afridi lost possession outside the penalty box and subsequently the Tajiks scored and won the game despite Pakistan putting up a valiant fight.
Up against hosts Kyrgyzstan in the next game and without Hassan Bashir who was sidelined with injury, Pakistan conceded in the opening minute and despite Mohammad Ali having a goal disallowed, missed chances by Mohammad Mujahid (PAF) cost them three valuable points.
With qualification out of the question, Pakistan played for pride and welcomed Hassan back to the squad against Macau. The Asian minnows were completely battered by the Shaheens in the first half, but with Kamran Khan (KRL) getting sent off for a rash tackle, things looked desperate for Pakistan.
However, Mohammad Ali beat three defenders to earn a penalty and Bashir converted as the Green Shirts took the lead. But it wasn’t over, as Kaleemullah (KRL) scored his first senior International goal from a free-kick and allowed Pakistan to return home cursing their luck in the opening two games.
With the senior lads getting a rest, it was time for the U-14 colts to shine as they participated in the inaugural qualifiers of the AFC U-14 Championship and were placed alongside Iran, India, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan.
Despite having all the odds against them, the young Shaheens beat everyone except Iran and qualified for the tournament in question which clearly showed that Pakistan was bursting with football at grassroots level.
After an impressive display in the AFC Challenge Cup Qualifiers, KRL FC, champions of the Pakistan Premier League in January took part in the AFC Presidents Cup in Philippines.
With a host of top stars including Kaleemullah and Mohammad Adil on their books, the side took on Dordoi Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) but surprisingly ended the contest in a 1-1 draw. Keeping up on their performance, KRL made short work of Global FC (Philippines) before completely annihilating Yeedzin FC (Bhutan) 8-0, with Kaleem scoring five in a continental competition to join the likes of Lionel Messi and comfortably securing their place in the last round.
In July, the U-16s journeyed to Nepal as they prepared to defend their well-earned crown of the 2011 U-16 SAFF Championship. However, the colts weren’t able to score in their opening two games against Afghanistan and Bhutan, while the hosts thrashed them 3-0.
Disappointed and tattered, the boys returned home, but for coaches Hassan Baloch and Sajjad Mehmood, the job wasn’t over as they took charge of the U-14s as they participated in the Asian Youth Games in August.
Pakistan took the same team that had earlier qualified for the AFC U-14 Championship with a few additions, but despite an encouraging 3-1 win over Chinese Taipei in their opening tie, the colts weren’t able to defeat higher ranked opponents Vietnam and North Korea.
With August coming to a close and the 2013 SAFF Championship right around the corner, Pakistan were invited for a historic friendly with neighbours Afghanistan in Kabul.
Although the word media focused on the Lions of Khorasan, the Shaheens were clearly out of their depth without their crux of foreign-based players and simply couldn’t match a well-drilled Afghanistan side that were playing in front of a home crowd after almost a decade.
The resulting 3-0 scoreline and long-ball brand of football employed was telecasted live to the entire nation by PTV Sports and subsequently after the poor performance, Serbian coach Zavisa Milosavljević was sacked and Bahrain’s Mohammad Al-Shamlan took charge alongside assistant boss Shahzad Anwar.
With only one International friendly and sacking of the coach before the SAFF Championship, expectations were low as Pakistan played their crunch tie against India.
However, buoyed by the inclusion of Hassan Bashir, Yousuf Butt, Adnan Ahmed (Nelson FC) and the returning Zesh Rehman (Pahang FA), the Shaheens completely battered their neigbours for most of the 90 minutes but weren’t able to score and eventually lost 1-0.
In the second game against Nepal, Hassan once again showed his quality by scoring early but celebrations were denied as 15-year-old Nepali prodigy Bimal Gharti Magar levelled scores in injury time for the hosts.
With a semi-final berth hanging in the balance, Pakistan played Bangladesh in their last group game and despite conceding early fought back to score two goals and rescue three points.
However, lady luck had other ideas and in the ongoing Nepal and India game, the Blue Tigers scored in injury time and equalled Pakistan’s goal difference, thus throwing them out of the tournament on head-to-head.
The Shaheens were clearly left ruing their luck but backed by their brilliant display of attacking football under the new boss, went home with their heads held high.
The Pakistan Football Federation also played their part and managed to secure hosting rights for the AFC U-16 Qualifiers in Lahore with Iran, UAE and Sri Lanka taking part.
Pakistan’s U-16 side were unable to match the quality of UAE and Iran but despite having the upper-hand against Sri Lanka in the last game weren’t able to convert their chances into a win, irking ire from the thousands of supporters gathered at the Punjab Stadium as well those watching the fixtures live on Geo Super.
And at the same time, Pakistan Premier League champions KRL FC took part in the latter stages of the AFC Presidents Cup, where they were pitted against Hilal Al-Quds (Palestine) and Dordoi Bishkek.
In Malaysia, KRL showed their class with Kaleemullah being instrumental in guiding the Rawalpindi-based side to the final of the continental competition. A momentous occasion beckoned for Pakistani football, but despite matching their final opponents Balkan FC (Turkmenistan) for the majority of the 90 minutes, Tariq Lutfi’s men conceded a late goal and curtailed their chances of making history.
Nonetheless, it was a positive improvement for Pakistan and coach Mohammad Al-Shamlan was eager for exposure and thus the Shaheens took part in the 2013 Philippines Peace Cup in October, while the U-19 juniors travelled to Iraq for the AFC U-19 Championship qualifiers.
Under the Bahraini’s charge, Mohammad Ali was also called up while established players were dropped in favour of youngsters as the tactician aimed to develop a side for the future.
And things got off to a flyer for the South Asians, as captain Zesh Rehman scored his first International goal in a 1-0 win over Chinese Taipei putting Pakistan into contention for the trophy provided they avoided defeat against Philippines in their last tie.
While Kaleemullah’s early goal looked certain to shift the favour and the trophy towards Pakistan, shambolic defending and a lack of concentration meant that the Azkals completed a 3-1 comeback with Eintracht Frankfurt’s Stephan Schrock humiliating the Pakistani backline.
However, while the senior team put up a valiant display, the juniors captained by PAF prodigy Mansoor Khan struggled to break down Kuwait and Iraq before playing out a goalless draw with Bangladesh.
Although Pakistan wasted November’s friendly dates, the Shaheens played a total of 13 International games in one calendar year and that figure alone was a major improvement for a team whose biggest bane has been a lack of fixtures.