By Shahrukh Sohail, Chief Editor, Islamabad
For Pakistan, a no-go area for international sports, pulling off the 2014 SAFF Women’s Championship without any major hitches and hosting it in the first place deserves some special plaudits.
The Pakistan Football Federation can be criticized for a lot of things, but kudos to the officials for pulling off an event of this stature with limited resources. Moreover, the Pakistan Sports Board, specifically IPC Chairman Riaz Hussain Pirzada also chipped in where it mattered most; allowing the teams to play in the majestic Jinnah Stadium in Islamabad and offering the PSB hostels for accommodation.
Surprisingly, the Federation also managed to rope in some key sponsors including the likes of Fair & Lovely through consultant Sardar Naveed Haider Khan, while President Faisal Saleh Hayat added to the event’s prestige with AFC President Sheikh Salman, SAFF President Kazi Salahuddin, Thai FA Chief Worawi Makudi and Malaysia’s Tengku Abdullah attending the finale.
However, in terms of marketing the event, things could have been done in a much more apt fashion. The 42,500 capacity stadium in Islamabad hardly had more than 1000 visitors at the most, an extremely sad statistic considering the massive potential football has in the capital.
The Federation could have changed all that had they chosen to hold the matches at night rather than early afternoon kick-offs during the work week. Moreover, there was next to no marketing done in any sort of medium including social media, print or television. And in the end, the low turnout was expected.
However, the decision to see PTV National, a channel not even present in most households, was a major turn-off, with the nation hardly seeing the Ladies in action during the 8-team event.
Moreover, the facilities catering to the media section were non-existent, with no electrical socket boards or tables set up for proper coverage. A very shocking sight especially considering the PFF’s own standards in Lahore, where journalists are thoroughly provided everything they need to aid their work.
Woes on the field
While the Federation did do their job by hosting the event, Pakistan put in a very underwhelming performance despite playing at home. Though the Ladies weren’t expected to win the tournament outright, presence in the semi-finals was considered a very realistic expectation, especially after the side managed to avoid stronger sides such as India and Afghanistan in the group stage.
However, the below-par 2-0 loss against Sri Lanka set the tone for the entire tournament and with players lacking basic skills, it’s no wonder that Nepal proved to be far superior opponents. In the end, the dead-rubber tie against lowly Bhutan was always going to be Pakistan’s chance for a confirm win and the Federation conveniently chose to telecast the game live on PTV Sports too.
Having had a camp for such a long time, question marks were also raised by experts on the abilities of coach Tariq Lutfi, whose tactics at times were too defensive, especially in the Nepal game, where Pakistan were already 2-0 down and needed goals, but the KRL boss opted for a lone-striker instead of bodies up-front.
Goalkeeper Syeda Mahapara also had a very polarized tournament, where she could be on top of the game with brilliant saves or would fail to catch basic crosses aimed at her. Captain Hajra Khan also failed to live up to her hype and was subdued throughout the matches apart from a few flashes of brilliance.
On the other hand, Shahlyla Baloch and Seher Zaman were pleasant surprises who did wow the audience with their skills at times. Another player worthy of mention, Malika Noor, was played out of her usual role in midfield and rather functioned as a deep sweeper. The result? Hardly any off-sides and an open invitation for teams like Nepal to attack. Nonetheless when Malika did return to the middle of the park against Bhutan, she was far better off than most of the players, leading to questionable tactics by the coach once again.
All in all, the tournament boosted the profile of the women’s game considerably. And though there are still enormous underlying problems that need to be addressed, for the time being, the Pakistani Ladies can be happy they tried their best in their own backyard.