By Shahrukh Sohail – Published by DAWN
An international FIFA friendly match against the visiting Palestine team with hardly 1,500 fans in the stands, no telecast and a 2-0 defeat for the hosts … welcome to the world of Pakistani football, where progress is slow to the point of being non-existent. But for once, the score-line could have been different. Much different, if only Pakistan’s Bahraini coach Mohammad Al-Shamlan had wanted it to be.
Shamlan took charge of the Pak Shaheens in October 2013, amidst great fanfare. Pakistan, who had struggled for crucial wins, points and at times, even goals, were finally maturing on the international arena. Captained by former Fulham defender Zesh Rehman at the 2013 Philippines Peace Cup, the team put up a great footballing show (compared to past standards) and almost managed to nick the trophy.
Not a bad start for Shamlan, who had firmly built up excitement amongst some fans. But that’s where the ball dropped. Or rather where Shamlan decided he was going to undo all recent progress.
Coach Shamlan training youngsters
You see Pakistan’s development under Shamlan, and the Serbian coach Zavisa before him, was down to a handful of talented local players and the influx of foreign-based players that created a strong footballing unit.
Instead of experimenting, the coach of Pakistan’s national football team needs to understand what really gives the team its strength
However, Shamlan completely negated this winning formula and instead chartered on a course with no real end in mind, using youngsters in the senior national team and throwing them into the deep end against tough opponents such as Lebanon, Jordan, Indonesia and Palestine.
Obviously the results weren’t going to be pretty and so far in this calendar year, Pakistan has played 10 international fixtures. They have won two matches, lost eight and failed to score in seven games.
Those statistics are extremely shocking, especially compared to last year’s run when the team started to gel together. Five games including the South Asian Football Federation Championship and Philippines Peace Cup, two wins, one draw, two losses and a major improvement in all round play.
That may not seem like progress, but for a team that hadn’t seen back-to-back victories for nearly four years, things were certainly on the right track.
Pakistan’s development under Shamlan, and the Serbian coach Zavisa before him, was down to a handful of talented local players and the influx of foreign-based players that created a strong footballing unit.
One year down the lane, Pakistan lined up against Palestine in Lahore’s Punjab Stadium with a squad which even had former coaches and ardent fans confused.
Shamlan claimed he was working to improve youngsters and here he had 32-year-old Abdul Rehman in the starting eleven, who performed so poorly that he eventually had to be substituted!
The Palestine team, which beat Pakistan 2-0
While the team selection was shocking, the following 90 minutes were not.
Palestine bombarded forward at will and Pakistan hardly had a sniff at the goal. Though they held the Palestinians well at the back until the 85th minute, the point is the Shaheens could have had a real chance of winning and playing better football had the coach not decided to exclude the foreign-based contingent and the senior local players, who have arguably been the best performers when donning the national colours.
Pakistan’s main problem, besides the non-existent midfield on the day, was finishing with PAF’s Mansoor Khan leading the line. The talented youngster may look the part in the Pakistan Premier League but he hasn’t evolved on to the international stage yet and needs time to adjust. Throwing him off the deep end and expecting him to beat defenders twice his size is hardly brilliant coaching.
On the other hand, coach Shamlan had the option of using Hassan Bashir, who plays his football for Fremad Amager in Denmark. Hassan, unlike Mansoor, is a proven goal-scorer for Pakistan and has one of the quickest goal-to-game ratios for the Shaheens; three goals and two-match winning assists in only 10 appearances.
And if the fans in Lahore found Pakistan’s style of play unattractive, the coach didn’t do himself or the team justice by not calling up former FC Copenhagen player Mohammad Ali. The striker not only combines extremely well in attack but possesses unmatched flair that was bound to bring the crowd to their feet.
Even the invisible midfield, which saw FC Dordoi’s Saddam Hussain running around in circles on his own and KRL’s Mehmood Khan nearly disappearing for the entire 90 minutes, could have used a major bout of quality with goal-scoring midfielder Bilal Butt from the UK or even Sheffield United’s Otis Khan, who has shown interest in representing the country of his origin. But what’s more baffling is the recent wrangle over the exclusion of Mohammad Adil, who is at FC Dordoi following his transfer from KRL earlier this year.
The winger, who is an automatic choice on the right-flank, wasn’t even called up with rumours claiming that he has upset coach Shamlan after convincing Saddam to sign for Dordoi instead of a club in Bahrain. With such an indifferent attitude towards players, it’s no wonder that there is an anti-Shamlan sentiment bubbling.
Returning to the on-field display, the defence did its job for most of the game, but there was no build-up from the back and the hosts started meekly from kick-off. And the point to ponder is not how good the backline was, but how much better it can be with the return of Zesh Rehman and newbie Nabil Aslam, who has UEFA Europa League and Danish Superliga experience with AC Horsens.
Coming to the goalkeeping department, shot-stopper Muzammil Hussain (Wapda) proved a very valid point on October 12, 2014; which is that apart from Yousuf Butt (Brønshøj, Danish, 1st Division), no goalie is consistent enough to be Pakistan’s first choice.
Hussain, who performed admirably in recent fixtures, foiled a near perfect start for Palestine as he failed to time his header on the edge of the box, with the ball floating past him by miles. And to compound things further, his failure to clear the ball in injury time resulted in the visitors’ claiming their second goal.
However, the game wasn’t fully devoid of positives. KRL’s full-back Ahsanullah enjoyed his best outing in Pakistan colours, while Mohammad Ahmed (Issa Town, Bahrain, 2nd Division) did a fine job of captaining the side.
For a primarily young team the result was too harsh and the performance commendable. But what Shamlan needs to realise is that this is not the junior team. This is the Pakistan national team and the selection should be on merit, not someone’s age or the country where they play their football in.
These aren’t hollow words; these exact sentiments were echoed before the game by Pakistan captain and top-scorer Kaleemullah, who reiterated that he could not as skipper of the side understand what the selection criteria was for the placing of players on the field.
And Kaleem was so adamant in his stance that he boycotted the call-up to play in Lahore; a major eye-opener for the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF), who remarkably cannot be faulted for the poor display at home.
On the contrary, the PFF provided ample exposure to the team and did play a major role by bringing international football to a country where most national sides are reluctant to come.
But the federation needs to take a firm stance. Either they can dilly-dally and allow Shamlan to continue selecting below-par; unproven players for national team duty or they can see Pakistan winning matches when the 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers come around next year.
The writer is chief editor at FootballPakistan.com
(The views expressed are the author’s own)
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 2nd, 2014