Mohammad Shahnawaz – Published by Mag The Weekly
Development of talent or the lack of it has been a constant problem with Pakistani football over the decades and more so in the last one or since it last won anything of regional standard. You will see and hear people in the media constantly talking about the dearth of talent in the country and the relevant authorities doing very little to identify and nurture it.
They do have a point when one sees the performance of the Pakistan Street Child team in the Street Child World Cup, but when it comes to mainstream there are doubts if the country really has enough talent. If the talent is there then what is being done in order to identify and nurture it?
Pakistani football authorities have learnt from their compatriots at the Hockey Federation and are replicating similar policies which one can expect to bring identical outcomes. The policy is simple – PHF in recent years has followed a trend where the senior team is replaced by ‘young talent’ after a dismal campaign. Then comes a time when the youngsters fail to impress and the faith in seniors is restored.
The football federation, which has younger age group teams that regularly participate in Asian championship qualifying rounds (last qualified for finals in 2000 and 2002), also has youth football championships which take place biannually or when the administration feels the need for them (U-16s Championship wasn’t held in 2013). But what the PFF doesn’t have is a youth development plan, youth academies and season long youth football leagues in order to further the progression of young players. Therefore it feels the need of inducting a number of U-19 and U-21 players into the senior team in order to provide “exposure” and “develop” them.
The universal rule of football is to develop players in age groups at their clubs, academies and national youth teams; not the national senior team. So why does every new coach that Pakistan hire gets this brief, develop young talent and so on? If you want to develop young talent at the national team level, hire a foreign coach to work with U-16s and U-19s and do not risk the standings of the senior team. George Kottan and Zavisa Milosavljevic were both given the same brief but they both spent a few months and realised that in order to win and deliver on their short to medium term contract they must pick the best Pakistan has to offer, both from home and abroad.
Whilst they failed to achieve a great deal of success, Zavisa Milosavljevic laid foundations in the year 2012 when the U-22s side he took over gained a great deal of exposure but didn’t deliver the results. Those players then went on to form a core of local players in the squad, mixed with foreign-based players, however current coach Mohammed Shamlan has either read the brief too seriously or isn’t concerned about what happens to Pakistan’s ranking and future ambitions at the international level. Whilst doing away with the existing senior squad in which he had the record of two wins, two losses and a draw in his first five matches as Pakistan coach.
So how could the PFF develop the current U-19s or U-21s, in a better way than putting the players into the senior team and jeopardising the prospects of the senior side while ignoring the appropriate progression route for junior players? Well, the federation can take lessons from a number of national teams on the continent (even the sub-continent) with varying financial expenditures to suit its financial strengths.
In recent years, Malaysia sent its U-23 team on a development project to Europe where they played in a regional league in Slovakia. The team built base for the success that Malaysia enjoys today. Currently, Malaysia has its U-23s playing in Singapore’s top division in the S-League whilst its U-19 team is playing in a state league in Australia. Closer to home, India played its U-21 team in the I-League Premier Division of Indian football, where the young players got the chance to play as a unit throughout the season, against other stronger teams. Many of those players have now gone to sign with bigger clubs, however the team had to disband due to financial issues.
Pakistan Football Federation officials often refer to a ‘Vision 2022’ which they claim will take Pakistan to the World Cup in Qatar, however there is very little to corroborate the claim. Apart from the FIFA funded Goal projects there is no investment being made into the infrastructure at grassroots level, be it from the PFF or the provincial associations.
The PFF was to develop Pakistani football and the ‘Vision 2022’ was to be delivered through AID-27 coaches who worked at the regional development centres. However, the AID-27 programme was brought to an abrupt end recently, citing financial difficulties by the PFF, but it is important to mention that the initiative was financed by the Asian Football Confederation. On a positive note, the Bahrain Football Association’s link has come in handy once again for the PFF in sending its coaches over to undergo the AFC ‘A’ Licence qualification.
Another argument presented is that kids start football too late in Pakistan, around the age of 13-14 when they have tried their hand at cricket and so on therefore missing early years of development which should have begun at age of 9/10 years. It is the job of the PFF and its stakeholders to devise adequate development strategies in order to increase participation levels and that too from a very early age. Football is still seen as a sport that is less attractive and mainly for the working class, and it misses out on huge demographics which cannot relate to the outdated system which in turn fails to develop young players or reward them properly for their efforts.
Pakistan Football Federation has experimented enough and has tasted failure repeatedly; therefore there is need for proper planning when it comes to development of players under-16 and post 16. What are you expecting from the U-19 or U-20 players who have failed to deliver within their age group competitions? Will they be able to deliver anything significant at senior level? That too with just a few months of training camps and tours. The senior and U-22/U-23s team should be running parallel, playing regular international matches, with players meriting their places based on their display and not age, just because the federation has had a change of policy.
The saying if you are good enough, you are old enough should apply but it should also apply to those players who have served their team with utmost dignity over the years and continue to perform, despite their age. Apart from age, the place of birth of some players shouldn’t also come into question as the ‘local vs foreigner’ debate still goes on. If they are born abroad and play at a good standard they should be considered for senior and junior sides. The success of teams blending local and foreign based talent is evident in the region.