By Umaid Wasim:
KARACHI: Mohammad Al Shamlan’s arrival sparked a wave of optimism that he would take Pakistan’s football team to the next level.
But almost 17 months since the Bahraini became head-coach, Pakistan have somehow contrived to fall a rung below than where they were at under his predecessor Zavisa Milosvljevic of Serbia — a fall which can be gauged by their current FIFA ranking of 188.
“No, no, no,” Shamlan shot back when asked by Dawn during an interview on Friday if his selection policy during his time as Pakistan coach was a bit short-sighted.
“During the last year-and-half, my focus was on developing the U-23 team since we had the Asian Games last year and now we have the qualifiers for the AFC U-23 Championship in March.
“When I came, I spoke the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) and we agreed on the idea of making this the senior team.”
That focus led to Pakistan playing largely U-23 matches during the course of the last 18 months and with international friendlies few and far between, it led to a spectacular fall in the FIFA rankings and means Pakistan will have to negotiate a first round playoff — also in March — to advance to the round-robin second stage of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers.
The second round sees eight five-team groups with the group winners advancing to the third stage of World Cup qualifying whilst also securing a place in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.
The next best 24 teams will then compete for the remaining 12 slots for the continent’s top football competition.
Pakistan finished 2013 at 172nd in the FIFA rankings on the back of good performances in the SAFF Championship and the Philippines Peace Cup — the tournament in Balacod being Shamlan’s first in the dugout as he was a consultant during the South Asian showpiece.
At the Peace Cup, Shamlan could’ve started his job with some much-needed silverware but his gung-ho approach saw a Pakistan team, which then was efficiently using the services of their foreign-based players, end empty-handed.
In the match against the hosts which they needed to draw to lift the title, Pakistan raced into an early lead but Shamlan’s attacking approach saw them fail to close out the game and they ended up losing 3-1 and left the Bahraini shifting his focus on developing the U-23 lot.
The U-23 team, selected exclusively from local players, did spring a few good results — most notably their 2-0 win over India last August ahead of the Asian Games — but despite intensive training and exposure, the team failed to reach the next level.
“If you look at the results, I haven’t lost to any of the teams who are below us,” Shamlan said, defending his record. “We’ve lost games but that’s always been against teams which are better than us.”
Now, though, he admits he’s in a “difficult position” as he juggles between the senior team and the U-22 team ahead of the crucial month of March.
And he’s even called up four foreign-based players including former Fulham defender Zesh Rehman, Denmark-based Hassan Bashir, Sheffield United’s Otis Khan and Sami Malik of German side Eintracht Braunschweig.
“I’ve known Zesh and Hassan and they add a lot of quality to the side,” Shamlan said. “They don’t have to attend the training camp [which starts from Jan 25] but Olis and Sami will have to attend the camp for at least 10 days to help integrate into the team.”
Shamlan could’ve used the quartet at the Asian Games in Incheon last October where three over-age players can be used to avoid the “team-building” conundrum he faces at present.
“At that point in time, I was hoping that the local-based players step up for the Games,” he admitted on Friday. “I was trying to give more opportunity to players who play here and incorporating them would’ve disturbed my team’s balance.”
Shamlan was the coach of Bahrain’s Olympic Football team and now, as the PFF Technical Director, hopes that the same can be done in Pakistan.
“Well that can be a solution but I’ve been with the boys for long and it wouldn’t be the correct time to give them a new coach,” he said.
The AFC U-23 Championship qualifiers also serve as qualifiers for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Pakistan host Jordan, Kuwait, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan in Group ‘B’ which runs from March 23-31.
The top three teams in the 10 groups punch a ticket to Rio with the group winners reaching the U-23 tournament finals in Qatar. The second-placed teams will then fight it out for the remaining five berths.
Shamlan said he was “undecided” on extending his contract with Pakistan after it ends in July although PFF marketing consultant Sardar Naveed Haider Khan told Dawn on Friday that the country’s football governing body was keen on prolonging the Bahraini’s stint.
“We spoke about his extension with AFC President Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa [who is also the head of the Bahrain FA] when he came during the SAFF Women’s Championships last year and we want Shamlan to stay,” Sardar Naveed said.
But whether that remains a ‘short-sighted’ recipe for disaster or a master-stroke for the future remains to be seen especially with Shamlan disclosing he has “a long-term plan for the future of Pakistan football” in his capacity as the technical director.
Shamlan, though, is positive his intensive work with the U-23 team, which makes a majority of the senior team, will bear fruit.
“Progressing far in the World Cup qualifiers seems too much of an ask but I think we can do well in the qualifiers of the U-23 Championship especially with home advantage,” he concluded, probably forgetting that the teams they are drawn against are ranked higher than Pakistan — teams against whom he’s never won.